A lot of the higher-profile clashes between Arkansans and their various levels of government over access to information has to do with contracts or personnel information after a public employee has been disciplined or fire. Government has massive amounts of information and, as demonstrated with every meeting of the Arkansas General Assembly, plenty of notions about how to keep from sharing it with The People.
At the center of a lot of questions people have about their government officials and agencies is one basic concept: Follow the money.
What’s the point?
Accountability and transparency are benefits of a low no-bid threshold in municipal government.
A lot of folks may recall the famed Hal Holbrook uttering that advice to Robert Redford as they acted out the drama behind the Watergate scandal in "All the President's Men." The real-life "Deep Throat" never actually said that. In reality, it's more likely the words of investigative wisdom arose from a lawmaker eager to figure out what President Richard Nixon's White House had to do with the burglary of Democratic offices.
Closer to home, the ability of Arkansas residents to see where their tax dollars are spent is vital to an goal of transparency in government. If one wants to really learn about the priorities of government leaders, see how they spend the taxpayer dollars within their control. Within the financial realm, it's also vital, in the name of accountability, for taxpayers to easily see the process government officials go through to pick contractors with whom so much of our tax dollars are spent.
That's why House Bill 1041 out to give heartburn to those who advocate for transparency and accountability in government.
HB 1041, by Republican Rep. Jack Ladyman of Jonesboro, would liberalize the process by which cities enter into contracts for services or purchases. Under current law, a mayor may execute a contract without bidding for anything less than $20,000. Ladyman's bill originally sought to expand mayoral ability to hand-select contractors and sellers for expenditures less than $50,000. The bill has now been modified so the threshold is $35,000.
We fully appreciate the concept of competitive bidding when it comes to public accountability. First, it makes sure taxpayers are getting the best price -- competition helps to ensure no contractor is milking the taxpayer for exorbitant amounts.
Bidding also is a powerful tool to promote accountability. The higher the no-bid dollar amount, the more room there is for shenanigans. It's certainly not unheard of for a mayor to throw city business to a friend or a relative. Granted, most are trustyworthy, but the laws are made to protect the public from people who look for loopholes and ways to conduct the public's business in less-than-honorable ways.
Expanding the dollar value to $35,000 or $50,000 creates a lot of room for abuse. Bidding helps to systematically protect taxpayers from it.
Lawmakers are no doubt getting pressure from the Arkansas Municipal League, a special interest group that benefits from taxpayer dollars and, ironically, lobbies for city governments. Not necessarily the people city governments are there to serve, but government itself. In other words, they lobby for legislation that makes governing easier. In their minds, to give them the benefit of the doubt, efficient city government is better at serving the public. But let's ask an honest question: Is what government wants to do always the thing that is best for its constituents?
The answer to that is a simple "no."
The Municipal League is often at the forefront of pushing for legislation that allows for more secrecy and less accountability in government. The organization -- which your tax dollars help support because they cover the dues for your municipal officials and city government to hold memberships -- doesn't advocate "for the people," but "for the government."
In the case of House Bill 1041, we believe the Municipal League and lawmakers supportive of the bill are wrong. They suggest the bill is about efficiency. Who can't appreciate some efficiency, right? But the fundamental public nature of government by necessity requires certain inefficiencies to preserve the public's ability to monitor what government does and how.
The most efficient form of government is more akin to dictatorship. No need for public hearings or explanations. No accounting for where the money goes and why. Operating as a government leader is far easier when the public is shut out of the process.
Business leaders who get elected to public office sometimes struggle with the built-in inefficiencies of government. They struggle to understand that it's there to ensure accountability to the public in ways the private sector does not have to worry about.
We hope our state senators recognize the value of competitive bidding and keeping the no-bid threshold low.
Increasing that threshold reduces accountability protections and puts taxpayer dollars at risk of abuse.
Commentary on 04/06/2019
Print Headline: Keep it low