Oakland Playing Fast & Loose With Contracts, Bidders Say
Competitive bidding is meant to secure the lowest price for a project by creating competition and ensuring contracts don't go to pre-selected firms. So when an agency wants to sole-source a contract, it must justify the move internally and get it approved. If that doesn't happen, officials can use sole-sourcing to steer contracts to favored firms and exclude cheaper bidders — raising project costs that taxpayers ultimately pay.
"They're trying to convert the process from a shield-bidding process to a negotiation process and at the federal level, it's not appropriate," said Steve Sorret, an attorney with Kutak Rock in Washington and a former curriculum director for The George Washington University Law School's government contracts program. "What they're doing here certainly goes against the grain of a typical public contracting process."
In a city known for awarding fraudulent contracts, routinely sole-sourcing its projects signals entrenched problems in the way Oakland does business, and in how that affects residents. The City Council currently faces findings by the Alameda County Grand Jury that it improperly awarded a $1.5 billion trash collection contract to an unqualified recycler. The 2014 deal sent garbage collection fees skyrocketing, prompting a group of Oakland landlords to sue the city earlier this year.
And in a 2013 report, the city auditor blasted councilmembers Desley Brooks and Larry Reid for breaking the law by steering part of a $2 million contract for demolition work at the former Oakland Army Base to a friend's company after the city had already begun negotiating with another contractor. Those initial negotiations, too, were illegitimate since municipal law requires the contract to go up for competitive bids first. Brooks also negotiated three separate contracts for a teen center in East Oakland, something only the city administrator can do.
Emboldened by high-ranking officials willing to look the other way when councilmembers break the law, the Oakland City Council routinely waives its legally mandated competitive bid requirement for awarding construction contracts worth more than $50,000 and negotiates the contracts directly with firms of its choice, according to a report by the city auditor.
The council simply relies on a statute allowing it to reject bids it deems invalid — or "nonresponsive." And at a City Council meeting on Tuesday, it blessed another competitive bid waiver, this time for the $400,000 renovation of the Dimond Branch library in East Oakland. Instead, the city will approach construction firms and negotiate with them one-on-one in a process known as sole-source contracting.
But falling short of small business goals and bidding over the project price don't render a bid nonresponsive. If a bidder fulfills all of the requirements for submitting the bid, they are by definition responsive and both Greentech and Wickman satisfied those requirements.
Jonathan Wickman says the city violated its own laws in deeming his firm's proposal nonresponsive so it could justify moving to direct negotiations. "That doesn't seem legal to me," Wickman said. "They should rebid it or find more money and rebid with more money in the budget. It's not like they're left with no avenue."