Concern about the perception of possible bid-tampering has prompted the Schmoke administration to seek a revision in the bidding process for highly competitive and often lucrative city contracts.
Mayor Kurt Schmoke agreed to a request that he seek the change, but he says he fears it could threaten the constitutionality of the city's minority set-aside law. The proposed change would affect the way prime contractors select minority subcontractors under the minority set-aside law.
The set-aside law requires prime contractors to give minority subcontractors work equaling 20 percent of the bid. Three percent of the bid is earmarked for firms owned by women.
Under the current system, in effect since October 1990, bids submitted by prime contractors are held for seven days while they line up minority subcontractors. Then the bids are opened and awarded.
A bill submitted to the City Council this week would allow prime contractors to select minority subcontractors before submitting their bids to the city. This was the process originally used for selecting subcontractors when the law took effect in January 1987.
Richard A. Lidinsky, deputy city comptroller, asked the mayor to seek the change after some contractors expressed concern about the possibility of bid-tampering.
After the bids are submitted, they are held in the comptroller's office for seven days. Some contractors said it might be possible for unscrupulous competitors to gain access to the bids and make changes in them, according to Lidinsky.
"One contractor even wanted to come into the office every day and make sure the bids were under lock and key," said Lidinsky.
Besides serving as deputy comptroller, Lidinsky is the clerk to the Board of Estimates, which awards city contracts. As clerk, he oversees the receiving and opening of bids.
"I have a lot of pride in this office being above board and I don't like its integrity questioned," Lidinsky said.
Schmoke said he understood Lidinsky's concerns, but he feared rTC that a court challenge could result from a return to the original way of selecting minority subcontractors.
"Under the old way, prime contractors are required to select minority subs before they can submit a bid, but they don't have to select non-minority subs until after the bid is awarded," the mayor said.
Schmoke said original requirement gives minority firms leverage to bargain for more favorable prices for their work, an advantage not shared by non-minority subcontractors, who are chosen after the bid is awarded.
"This unequal treatment of subcontractors worries me constitutionally," Schmoke said. "It worried me two years ago when we decided to make a change in the way minority subs were selected."
After the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989 declared Richmond, Va.'s, minority set-aside program unconstitutional, Baltimore and other local governments around the country scrambled to review the legal soundness of their laws.
Last year, the mayor proposed a bill that would have given the winning prime contractor 10 days to find minority subcontractors. The measure had support from the major contractors' associations, but minority owners opposed it. The minority business owners said the bill would have taken away their leverage to negotiate premium prices for subcontracts.
The council passed legislation creating the current seven-day requirement, a compromise that has pleased no one.
Schmoke said he still prefers the 10-day proposal, "but will go back to the old way if that's what everyone wants and just hope we don't get sued."