Legislators are moving to shield from public scrutiny, at least for a time, the information contractors bidding for N.C. Department of Transportation jobs give the agency, reports the Durham Herald-Sun.
The move has support from both DOT and industry trade groups, who support it because they don’t want bidders to see each other’s submissions before agency officials decide what firm will get a contract.
“We feel like it will enhance the competition in a competitive bidding process,” DOT chief spokesman Ted Vaden said.
State law now considers bid submissions public record, thus making most of the information in them subject to disclosure pretty much from the moment the documents arrive at DOT. The problem, DOT officials and trade-group representatives say, is firms hoping for contracts have been using the Public Records Law to get a look at what their competitors have turned in.
That kind of thing’s been going on for a while, but is drawing new scrutiny because the agency of late has been relying more heavily on so-called “design-build” contracts where the same firm draws up the detailed blueprints of a project and then quotes DOT a price to actually build it.
Giving competitors a look at the design half of that equation can give them an unfair advantage, said Barry Jenkins, director of the heavy division of Carolina AGC, the trade group for the state’s general contractors. Jenkins added that his organization has no objection to DOT’s releasing information about a submission after it’s awarded a contract. “Once a decision is made, it’s public record and nobody has any problem with” that, he said.
State Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Southport, is sponsoring the bill that would make the necessary change to state law. On Wednesday he told members of the Senate Transportation Committee that the law in its current state allows firms to “hitchhike” on another’s design “without having to put the time and money into” developing their own, thus negating the public benefits of DOT’s bidding process.
Committee members agreed. They decided on a voice vote to endorse the bill and send it to the Senate floor.
The Public Records Law has long exempted trade secrets from disclosure. But DOT officials, after first stiff-arming some information requests from contractors, eventually “decided they [had] to make stuff available or get [legislative] authority not to release it until after” a contract decision is made, Jenkins said.
It’s not clear whether the Rabon bill would become a precedent for other agencies or levels of government. As written it applies only to DOT. But DOT isn’t the only one that’s run into problems on this front. Durham officials, for instance, have twice in recent years seen major contract decisions turn contentious after a firm bidding for their business adjusted its proposal in reaction to what it’d learned about a competitor’s offer Read More.