What’s more important: following public procurement rules, or making sure that federal funding won’t disappear? That’s the question being debated in Sacramento, where a bid dispute has put $6.9 million in federal funding at risk; see the article in ENR. There may be a relatively non-controversial resolution, but the bigger question remains – how much should a public authority be able to exercise discretion and/or bend the rules? This is a very slippery slope.
After a second round of bidding, the third-low bidder protested, saying the low bidder failed to list a pertinent subcontractor. The low bidder responded, noting that the subcontract amount in question is below the threshold for listing. The city, running into a federal funding deadline, is considering suspension of the public bidding laws (and going ahead with the low bidder, ignoring the protest) so as not to lose out on money from the federal government.
Suspension of public bidding rules is more often found in emergency situations – a broken water main, a damaged bridge, a fire that destroys part of a public building – where it is critical to get construction crews working towards an immediate resolution. The Sacramento situation has elements of unexpectedly high bids in the first round, delays in the process, and then a bid protest with time running out. From the available public reports it is difficult to sort out all the reasons for delay. But public authorities should be wary of suspending the rules for convenience. These are our tax dollars at work; we should expect a transparent and fair process. The City of Sacramento and the low bidder may not agree, but others will argue they should have followed their own procurement rules.