The word on everyone’s lips this council season in Philadelphia was “slow.” With a national election sucking the air out of local politics and no banner piece of legislation to hang their hats on, city legislators stuck to tweaks and uncontroversial personal projects. The nitty-gritty politicking happened behind closed doors, and even that mostly revolved around preparing for the city’s major Rebuild initiative next year.
But the last day of the season is always packed with last-minute legislation and Thursday was no exception. With eyes still on Rebuild, which will pump hundreds of millions of dollars into repair contracts for dilapidated city-owned facilities, council approved a move to shift the city’s contracting process from lowest bidder to so-called “value bidding.”
Advocates, like bill sponsor Bobby Henon, hailed the moves as a reform.
“It is a best practice,” he said, in a prepared statement. “Best Value is a modern procurement practice that will allow the City to include other criteria, beyond cost alone, to determine which bid is selected.”
In floor speeches, Henon and Councilmember Derek Green noted that among major American cities, only Philly and Indianapolis have stuck with low-bid contracting – a system that was also hailed as reform for big cities dominated by cronyism in the mid-20th century. Philly’s current bid system dates to that time, and any change will require voter approval next year to modify the city’s 1950s-era home rule charter.
Proponents of value bidding – including the Kenney administration – say experienced contractors game the city’s current system by simply lowballing bids and tacking on overruns later. The proposed update would instead create a yet-to-be-determined “score” of contractor value that took other variables into account.
But not everyone is happy. Former managing director Jay McCalla, in an Inquirer op-ed, said value bidding would become a tool for the mayor to “steer contracts to donors or other favored firms.”
Reached via email, McCalla stuck by those comments.
"This bill solves zero problems and widely opens the door to pressure and argument in awarding contracts," he wrote. "The timing is concerning because of the upcoming $600 million Kenney plans to spend on his 'ReBuild'. There's an ethical cloud over this administration that makes probing questions necessary."
Advocates fired back in council that the new system would, in fact, increase contract transparency.
“As far as loudest criticism as to how it opens the door for cronyism and politics…[bids] will be weighted, bids will be evaluated by committee,” said Councilmember Bill Greenlee. “And once the winning bid is selected, the city will make available to the public the score of that bid.”
The bill had been held up in a morning caucus session, but was brought to the floor in session and passed without dissent.
In other business:
- Legislation to end a so-called real estate transfer tax "loophole" passed, adding millions to city coffers at the expense of commercial property sales.
- Greenlee succeeded in passing a bill that bars employers from asking job applicants to disclose their salary history, which he billed as a move to close the gender wage gap.
- A measure promoted by Maria Quiñones-Sánchez to crack down on “rogue” towing companies passed.
- Council voted to approve a set of zoning regulations for medical marijuana dispensaries.
- Rezoning of the long-desolate “Logan Triangle” brownfield site passed.
- Council will consider a move to ban LGBTQ “conversion therapy.”
- A resolution to allow the city’s backlogged tax review board to meet in private sessions was approved.
- Councilmember Curtis Jones, Jr. called for hearings into the use and transparency of police body cameras, which are slowly being deployed in the Philadelphia Police Department.
- Underscoring the hottest topic of conversation this season, Council approved a resolution, introduced by Cherelle Parker, reiterating its commitment to using the Rebuild initiative to increase build trades diversity.
Editors note: This article has been updated to include comments from Jay McCalla.