There’s something quite refreshing about Miami-Dade County commissioners expressing dissatisfaction with the county government’s procurement process. Time was, commissioners relished these quests for lucrative deals that employed a host of lobbyists, many of whom were once staffers for county mayors or commissioners. Commissioners knew that lobbyists and bidders would contribute to their reelection campaigns and even their pet causes to curry favor.
Now, though, while some of that still goes on, the increasing frequency of contract disputes, where losing bidders challenge the winner of the selection process, seems to have taken the fun out of the game for some commissioners. Good. Maybe all that grumbling from the dais at County Hall will result in improvements in the overall procurement process. We can only hope.
After sitting through the third bid protest at Tuesday’s commission meeting, Commissioner Audrey Edmonson complained that, “The same system we’ve been using again and again and again is obviously not working because here we have another protest. Something needs to change.”
Some commissioners called on Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez — who wasn’t at the meeting — to reduce the well-funded bid protests invariably led by a cadre of familiar lobbyists. The mayor has been handed an opportunity to improve a process whereby bid protests have become another cottage industry for local lobbyists, who tend to blame county staffers for mistakes in the selection process.
Allowing losing bidders to formally challenge the winner in an appeal of a county decision long predates Mr. Gimenez. And over the years, improvements have been made to the procurement process itself. A cone of silence bans communications between the county deciders and bidders and their lobbyists after bid presentations are made. Selection committees consist of people with expertise in the service being sought by the county. Commissioners are supposed to be out of the decision loop while committees judge bids before making recommendations to them and the mayor.
Still, there are reputable firms that won’t seek county business because they find Miami-Dade’s procurement process too politicized and lobby-centric. So the county may not always be able to choose the best services and best prices because some would-be bidders opt out of the game.
The mother of all bid disputes is between CH2M Hill and AECOM Technical Services over a whopping $1.6 billion contract to oversee the county’s massive sewage-system overhaul. When CH2M Hill won the bid last year, AECOM challenged it. Mayor Gimenez assembled a new selection committee and gave the dueling bidders another chance. But when the committee chose AECOM in the second go-round, CH2M Hill challenged it in February. Meantime, the county’s crumbling sewers continue to rot.
There has to be a better way to do this. Bring yet more transparency to the selection process — a clear A-to-Z record of how a committee goes about choosing the top bidder so that fewer losers have grounds to appeal, for instance. The mayor should empanel a group of people with procurement experience to examine the current grounds for a bid challenge and find ways to reduce them while maintaining fairness for all bidders. That’s no slam dunk, but it’s doable. This is a great opportunity for Mayor Gimenez to bring more reforms to the procurement of county contracts and services that will benefit taxpayers.