THE DECISION by four Pinellas County commissioners on Tuesday to bypass the top-scoring company vying for a construction contract appears to be more home cooking than good government. The choice of the well-connected Clearwater firm that narrowly ranked second could spawn a costly bid protest and smacks of favoritism. So much for bringing market forces to government spending.
The county staff issued a solicitation for proposals in May to build a $4.5 million federally financed medical clinic for the poor and homeless in Clearwater. The commission was expected to approve the staff's rankings of the three most qualified firms and authorize negotiations with the top-ranked firm, Peter R. Brown Construction, which has been recently acquired by a South Florida company.
But instead of routinely approving the consent agenda item, Republican Commissioner Susan Latvala suggested the commission direct the staff to begin negotiations with the second-place finisher, Creative Contractors. Sitting in the audience was the company's chief executive officer, Alan Bomstein, who has long been active in local politics and civic endeavors.
Latvala claimed it wasn't politics. She just wanted to avoid giving another major project to Peter R. Brown Construction, which already has a $9 million job to build a county parking garage. Three other commissioners, Republicans Karen Seel and John Morroni and Democrat Janet Long, agreed.
Latvala said she was employing a sensibility she said was common practice during her time on the Pinellas County School Board — spreading projects across multiple firms. If that's the goal, the commission should rewrite its bid process to prohibit employed vendors from submitting again for new jobs. But when government artificially limits the pool of qualified bidders, taxpayers are virtually assured they will pay more due to a lack of competition. If the situation had been reversed and Creative Contractors already had a big county contract, would the commissioners had been so concerned about spreading work around?
Latvala and three of her colleagues cast aside a sound bid process for political convenience masked in professed good intentions. Creative Contractors is surely able to do the job, but county staff determined it wasn't the most qualified company that applied for this particular project. When taxpayers are paying the bills, the first-place finisher — not the second — deserves the first crack at negotiating a contract for the job.