Election Director Marisa Crispell-Barber did Luzerne County a disservice by being — to borrow her ill-chosen word — “smart” during recent negotiations to secure a contract with a company that will transport the county’s election machines.
Apparently, election bureau officials were fully satisfied with the job performance of longtime contract-holder Matheson Transfer Co. Nevertheless, they sought proposals from interested firms.
J. Cawley Moving Co., in Jenkins Township, responded, presumably after at least one of its employees spent considerable time and energy researching what it would take to handle the task and drawing up a pitch for the county. In mid-September the company submitted a proposal to do the work for $19,500, supposedly $5,000 below the cost provided by the moving firm to which the county already had ties.
Rather than pick the newcomer, Crispell-Barber and the county’s purchasing department allowed Matheson to submit another proposal. It still came in $500 more than the competition’s quote but was deemed good enough to meet the county’s requirements; Matheson landed the contract for November’s election.
None of this violated the law, said Luzerne County Chief Solicitor C. David Pedri. Unlike when a government body bids for products, professional services can be negotiated, and the county isn’t locked into accepting the lowest offer.
But a handful of county council members last week rightly voiced objections to using one company’s offer as a bargaining chip to extract a lower offer from an existing provider of services. “Do you know how that looks?” asked Councilwoman Elaine Maddon Curry.
We do: It looks underhanded.
Granted, we’re strongly in favor of cutting government costs where prudent and looking to stretch the taxpayer’s penny where possible. However, the Election Bureau’s latest maneuvers don’t sit well for a variety of reasons.
For starters, doing business with Luzerne County shouldn’t in any way resemble cutting a deal on ABC’s “Shark Tank.” How might the county government’s bait-and-switch-type behavior impact its ability to solicit future proposals for the election bureau or other departments? If, for instance, the county seeks an architect’s services, will new firms even want to enter the fray? Or will business owners decline to invest their time and expertise in responding to a request for proposal if they sense it might be wasted effort, merely part of a game they cannot win?
Moreover, Crispell-Barber’s election bureau already has generated its share of poor publicity for problems, some inherited (those hard-to-access polling places) and some self-inflicted (the botched Hazleton Area School Board primary, which resulted in a court-ordered special election this year in Carbon and Schuylkill counties).
Under questioning from council last week, Crispell-Barber admitted the strategy used in obtaining a moving contract might seem a “little shady.”
Perhaps she and workers in the purchasing department should be reminded that, given this county’s not-so-distant trouble with certain corrupt officials and shoddy bidding practices, residents have seen enough of the dark side. They expect today’s public servants to strive to do the right thing — which is undisputedly the “smart” thing.