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Bidding wars causing more sparks at council

Sun Advocate reporter

This article might have been titled, "A California Yokel in King Joseph Piccolo's Court," seeing the novice author's unfamiliarity with the working of the Price City Council, but we'll stick with the present headline.

Those who have experienced the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland can probably relate to the most recent Price City Council conclave held on Wednesday, March 10. It began nice and smooth with a well-received Pledge of Allegiance, rousing roll call and little - if any - public comment.

A spirited report by councilmembers sequed into the opening of sealed bid on a new SUV for the city's public works department (one unnamed merchant wanting $10,000 more than the other, weird when the city's limit was $28,000 total). All other consent topics were unanimously consented right off the table until item 12, which authorized flags and bunting to celebrate "Foster Care Month" and a "Fun Run" (which is like calling the Bataan Death March a "fun hike").

A few more items were dispensed with (including the sale of 65 "old doors" and 28 used chairs) and then various members made their committee reports: Arbor Day was brought up, an audio-visual specialist was requested for International Days, the status of Price River Water Improvement District was updated, a swing set was promised for a local park and a rather long discussion about municipal flower pots ensued.

Like the ride, all was safe, slow and serene. Like the ride, however, all of that was about to change. After each person in the room had given his or her opinion on their favorite project or topic, councilmember Kathy Hanna-Smith took the floor and the attraction plunged down a steep slope and ended with the peaceful village being attacked by scaliwags. But before this saga goes on, some background may be in order.

Hanna-Smith had objected during the last gathering, on Feb. 24, regarding the council's bidding process. Evidently, the contract to provide a dump truck for the city was given to a Bountiful dealer because that particular bid was $51 lower than a local firm. It was Ms. Hanna-Smith's contention that - for $51 - the local company should have been given the contract.

"I hate to belabor the point," she began, "but in looking into the bidding process, we did have a disclaimer in the bidding package. One which might have allowed us to opt out. From what I understand, we could have rejected the out of town offer because we as a board decided to reject it. Price City has a right to reject bids. I wish we had. I am really disappointed. I said in my opinion then not to do it."

All in the name of keeping things local, practicing what the city preaches, etc. When one steps back and takes a logical look at it, from a legal perspective, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to scrap the entire bidding process, as Mayor Joe Piccolo could have chided sweetly. From a purely litigious point of view, Ms. Hana-Smith's assertions appeared not to hold water, as city attorney Nick Sampinos might have advised softly.

"You would have to very clearly state the reason for rejecting a bid," he said. "Otherwise, you could legitimately subject the city to legal action."

But perhaps the average Joe Q. Citizen doesn't really understand the minutia of legalese wrapped in the confusing enigma that is a government entity's bidding process.

Perhaps, the humble folk in Carbon County who labor in the fields, sweatshops, behind the counters and in the mines might just very well read how - for a mere $51 - a local company which supports local events, local charities and (wink, wink) local politicians could lose a major contract to a firm that has little, if any, connection to Price or Helper or Wellington or any other place in the vicinity.

The cold, hard facts of the process are in place, Hana-Smith was told in no uncertain terms, to make sure the bids are open to every participant in a fair and unbiased manner. Carried out to its most ridiculous conclusion, this policy could mean that if a company located on the planet Pluto comes in with a lower bid than one right next to Price City Hall, well, logically, there you have it...

Sampinos was quoted from that Feb. 24 gathering, saying "Creating an atmosphere where locals are always favored in the bidding process would hurt the city because of a biased attitude."

I don't know. I'm an ignorant person in many respects and my lack of knowledge of law could fit into the Grand Canyon, but just what is so wrong about giving locals some sort of advantage. Not a huge one, but shouldn't support of local causes and people count for something?

Still, Hanna-Smith was not finished with her argument. "I am really disappointed we accepted that bid. I wish I would have known we had an out. I just think for $51 it should be in our best interest to reward local companies."

His Honor made this point quite clear, saying "That won't stand up in a court of law, though. All I've been a merchant for 40 years. I've bid on things before. All I want out of the process is to have a fair chance."

The point was brought up that in certain situations all bids could be rejected and everything would begin all over again, but a low bid - even if sent in by natives of Timbuktu - cannot be dismissed by and of itself. You know, the old "throwing the baby out with the bath water" adage.

One wonders why a city or township would lock itself into such rules, but one quickly realizes if word got 'round that Price was only awarding contracts to local companies, competition might cease.

Conversely, though, if a local firm isn't give some kind of leeway, what's the point in them bidding at all? The board might as well contract out to the poorest area in Utah where all work and products would be below costs and wages incurred here in most parts of the state. So much for competition.

"Send all the bids back and start all over again - I'm all for that," Piccolo said. "But I'm not for contaminating a system that works very well. We need to have a fair and equitable system or we'll have Hell to pay..." I wasn't at that meeting, but one wonders why the group just didn't just throw the bids out and begin again. After all, $51 is such an insignificant difference. It isn't like one bid was, say, $10,000 lower than the next one.

Hanna-Smith continued to disagree, claiming that for such a paltry sum, consideration should have been given to a neighborhood business. Some local governing boards even have it automatically stipulated that if the next lowest bid is by an area entity - and it is within 10 percent - the local firm wins the contract.

That element seems to have been missing from both the conversation and the Price City bidding instructions.

Pity, because a compromise could have been clearly drawn in this instance. Hanna-Smith is taking a populist course here, while the mayor and others are stuffy, but well-meaning, pragmatists. Populists get all the headlines, pragmatists keep getting elected. She no doubt has zeal and enthusiam for this cause.

Those who opposed her were probably correct on purely intellectual terms, and by the letter of the law had the advantage, but the heart just didn't seem to be there. Hanna-Smith, whether she meant to or not, has gotten her point across. She seems to legitimately care for the businesses in this area.

The members who sided against her, no doubt, care about businesses here, as well. We wonder, though, will the public see that concern when it is couched in the bowels of proceedings that may be technically correct, but appear to be a bit off-kilter in its basic humanity? What profit a city's budget if it gains a cheaper dump truck - by $51 - but loses its own soul?

Stay tuned.

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