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Editorial: Keep your politics out of BernCo’s contract process

“It’s just kind of an interesting irony that we had somebody talking to us today opposing our sick-leave ordinance who is now asking for county dollars.”

– Bernalillo County Commission Chairwoman Maggie Hart Stebbins

The comment by Stebbins at a July 2 commission meeting comes perilously close to suggesting there should be some sort of political quid pro quo in awarding contracts to companies, despite them winning by competitive bid.

One of the commission’s agenda items was approval of a contract for TLC Plumbing & Utility to provide emergency services under an on-call arrangement. The county had asked for proposals and TLC, a highly reputable and well-known local firm, responded. County officials recommended a “yes,” subject to commission approval.

So the company wasn’t really “asking” for dollars – which in fact are taxpayer dollars used to pay for a service, not commission money doled out based on political agenda. Isn’t that what the procurement process is supposed to be all about? Bang for the taxpayer buck?

The company’s political transgression was that earlier in the same meeting, CEO Dale Armstrong testified – along with many other business interests – in opposition to the county’s proposed sick leave ordinance. TLC provides sick leave, Armstrong said, but he has concerns about one-size-fits-all government mandates.

This was enough for Hart Stebbins to question the contract, going so far as to ask staff what would happen if the commission didn’t approve it. Fleet and Facilities Director Mary Murnane, who gets credit for bucking a clear political headwind, responded she would have “a minor heart attack” given the need for the services. She urged commissioners to sign off on the contract, which Hart Stebbins eventually agreed to do by joining a 3-0 vote for approval.

But the warning shot was clear: Fall in line politically, or your business with the county could be at risk.

The context of all this was a meeting in which there was testimony on the county’s sick leave proposal and discussion about whether companies not based in Bernalillo County – along with IRB and LEDA applicants – should be required to have the same policies in place as companies falling under county jurisdiction if/when the new sick leave ordinance is approved.

Hart Stebbins, echoing Commissioner Debbie O’Malley, said she would like to see an “overarching policy that would set certain standards for any entity that receives” county dollars.

That’s more “overreach” than “overarch,” and almost certainly will drive up costs for county contracts. And it’s a slippery slope. Which policies? Maybe no pension plan investments in energy stocks or Israeli companies? Nevertheless, it’s a reasonable policy debate to have. Ultimately it’s up to voters to decide how much of their tax money it’s worth to advance a political agenda or support what commissioners decide is a socially responsible position.

Interestingly enough, Armstrong said in an interview he didn’t object to a rule requiring businesses abide by county ordinances before getting county contracts.

“I think that’s fair,” he said. “When they create rules, our job as vendors are to follow the rules.”

What isn’t fair, or acceptable, is the chairwoman’s suggestion that speaking out against her – or even the commission’s – agenda is perhaps grounds to deny a competitively won contract. That’s not how things are supposed to work. At least not in this country.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.