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Keeping campus proposals secret was the city’s own choice

Proposals from developers for use of the city-owned Midtown Campus, which is now mostly vacant, are being kept confidential. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Santa Fe City Hall apparently takes umbrage with recent reporting that said city government’s consideration of proposals to develop the city-owned Midtown Campus are “shrouded in secrecy.”

In an email described as public outreach “that is part of an open and transparent process,” the city said last week, “There is no secrecy when every step of the project and the process are in the public domain.”

“The City is strictly complying with the New Mexico Procurement Code to guide and manage the evaluation and selection process. This is the mayor’s commitment to good government and following the rules that protect the public interest.”

The message touts the extensive public comment period that was used to help create a “vision” for the campus that includes housing, an education institution and film production. But the state government procurement regulations, the city email notes, “require confidentiality of the contents of the respondents’ submission packages.”

City officials have said that, in following these rules, the public won’t be told any of the specifics of bidders’ proposals for campus development until after the council votes to accept the winning offer.

But what City Hall’s outreach message fails to mention is that the city’s compliance with the state procurement code, and the code’s rules against making public any contract offer before a contract is actually awarded, is entirely voluntary.

Just last year, the City Council majority rejected a proposal from Councilors Signe Lindell, Chris Rivera and Renee Villarreal that would have called for more transparency in the contract-awarding process, with bidder proposals made public after a recommendation is made to the council, but before any vote is taken to accept any particular offer.

And, in the past, before Mayor Alan Webber’s administration, Santa Fe city government regularly made bids public even before any offer was recommended to the council by an evaluation committee.

As we’ve noted before, the city even released detailed analyses of the bids for city banking services before the council decided to stick with Wells Fargo in 2017, after scandal had rocked the financial giant over accounts that were opened without customers’ knowledge.

So City Hall should not push off onto state government the responsibility for the confidential process being used to consider the proposals for the campus project. The mayor and City Council voted to do things this way.

The recent city email does add: “The proposals came from firms all over the world and represent a significant investment of time, creativity and effort. These ideas have been submitted to the Evaluation Committee, but remain the confidential and intellectual property of the responding firms. Firms that do not make the finalist group could still be considered for collaborations at a later stage of the project. These firms are not willing to lose a competitive advantage by having their intellectual property made public and risk having their visions knocked off by less original firms. That’s why the proposals are not made public until the contracts have been awarded.”

City officials have made similar arguments before in rejecting the more transparent contracting processes used in the past or the amendment to make bids public before final approval that was rejected last year.

It’s still unclear, though, how one company can knock off another’s ideas to gain an advantage on a particular project once offers are submitted and on the record. Making the proposals public after a recommendation is made to the council, but before a final vote for approval would also seem to preclude any stealing of ideas.

There’s no reason to suspect anything shady is going on or that city leaders are doing anything other than seeking the very best ideas for creating an impressive new city center on the Midtown Campus.

But the secrecy that does in fact shroud the development proposals themselves is the result of choices made by Santa Fe’s elected officials. It’s a designated policy about how Santa Fe wants to do the public’s business, and it’s not a mandate from above.

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