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At a hearing on the lawsuit Thursday, Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Cates asked Hays an interesting series of questions. The judge was trying to see how the city's "public works" argument would apply in the real world.

If the city decided to install new floor tile throughout City Hall (a project presumably requiring an expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars), would that be a public work requiring competitive bidding?

Probably not, Hays amiably answered.
How about painting, the judge wondered. If the entire building needed to be repainted, would the city have to solicit bids?

Of course not. Painters do not need drawings from architects and engineers, Hays thoughtfully theorized.

Carpeting, maybe?
In general, no.
I think you can see where this is leading. Judge Cates did not indicate on Thursday when he would rule on the lawsuit, but if the city's position were found to be correct, bureaucrats could begin passing out millions of dollars in supply and maintenance contracts each year without competitive bidding.

The bureaucrats could just decide that some product they wanted to buy was not a public work, and then recommend a seller to the city council. The contract might go to a competent business that offers good prices. Or it might go to the nearest political bagman, who would charge the city an arm and a leg.

David Jones, the attorney for the company suing the city over the sign contract, obviously has a bias. Still, he made a point rather succinctly the other day:

"The problem is, even if everybody's honest, if you don't use competitive bidding, you open the door to corruption," he said.

@body:Jane Morris is an open, genial woman who worked as a project manager for the new City Hall. I can't imagine her having a dishonest bone in her body. I asked her about the two City Hall furniture contracts that were let without competitive bidding. They totaled about $700,000.

Basically, Morris said, the contracts were not bid because the city had to obtain furniture quickly. The time schedule for moving into the new City Hall wouldn't allow competitive bidding, so the city picked two companies that carried the right range of products at good prices.

"This is procurement--things--so the city is not required by law to bid," Morris explained.

But putting the legal technicalities aside, I asked her, isn't the city just asking for trouble--creating the suspicion of corruption, at least--when it lets large contracts without bidding?

Morris told me it was probably best if one of her superiors in the City Manager's Office answered that question. There was no rancor in her response, though; she just seemed to be following the normal chain of command.

So I contacted assistant city manager Sheryl Sculley. Although more formal than Morris, Sculley also responded openly to my inquiries.

Sculley said lack of time, combined with a desire to include more minority-owned and women-owned businesses in the City Hall project, dictated the decision not to bid the sign and furniture contracts.

Although bids were not taken, Sculley said, the city made concerted efforts to cut costs. Surveys were made to establish "benchmark" prices. Besides, she said, all three firms that got contracts are owned by women or minorities, are located in the Phoenix area and are well-known to city officials.

Even so, she acknowledged, the nonbid process could raise questions about favoritism.

"Yes, I understand, and we're very concerned about the perception issue you raised," Sculley said. That is why most city contracts would continue to be awarded through competitive bidding, she said, and, oddly enough, I believed her.

I believed she did not want the city government to look underhanded or corrupt. And I believed she wanted to build a low-cost City Hall that the government and the public could be proud of.

And that is what gives the unbid City Hall contracts, and the city's response when challenged on them, such an Alice in Wonderland flavor. A series of well-meaning public servants--all concerned with the image of the city, all apparently dedicated to cost control and open government--have behaved in ways that make it easy for almost anyone to portray the project as sleazy and wasteful.

They have evaded the intent of anticorruption laws (and that is exactly what competitive-bidding regulations are). They don't see that they have done anything wrong. They want to keep on ducking the law whenever they see the need.

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John Mecklin

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