Sunday, August 14, 2011

Richmond's Procurement Process Must Follow Legal Guidelines

Recently, there has been some concern about the City awarding a contract to a Denver-based firm. Primarily, concerns have focused on how the successful vendor should have been a local, rather than out-of-state firm. I share and understand that interest and wish that the winning proposal had come from a local business.

Since the beginning of my administration, I have focused on ensuring, to the greatest legal extent possible, that the City of Richmond uses local businesses. We have taken this approach largely because it makes economic sense. With more than one of every five residents in the city living in poverty, our ability to hire local businesses and local residents would be a key component to changing that dynamic.

In fact, in our first economic development investment, the Hippodrome Project, we intentionally utilized funding available through a Federal program which allowed us to require local hiring and minority business inclusion. We have implemented this intentional Richmond First focus as much as possible with investments the city makes. For example, when we retained over 300 jobs at Pfizer we implemented these principles. As part of our first major redevelopment project on Broad Street, we included these ideals in our development agreement. Moreover, in developing new financing tools, we created tools specifically targeted at local businesses.

Unfortunately, our procurement process does not allow for us to prioritize local contractors. Virginia’s Dillon Rule - which limits the powers of the City of Richmond (and all localities in the state) to activities specifically granted by the General Assembly - is an obstacle to the efficient and effective running of the City’s business. State law does not allow a locality to award “bonus points” to local firms. This is a limitation that significantly reduces our flexibility in the contracting process and sometimes hurts local businesses and vendor

Nonetheless, we are committed to furthering our ability to “Buy Richmond” first. We've been exploring ways to further that goal since taking office, with a specific eye toward what legislative changes are necessary and can be accomplished. As part of our strategy, we will move forward in asking the 2012 General Assembly to give the City of Richmond the authority to award points to local businesses. I hope that those who have expressed their frustrations recently will join with me and support this effort.

Even within the existing limitations, our effort to strengthen local businesses and their relationship with the City has been present in the procurement process. We have been encouraging local businesses to bid on City work for some time now. Specifically, our Office of Minority Business Development sends notices to all of our registered minority vendors informing them of upcoming business opportunities. In addition, we have updated our procurement forecasting calendar which potential vendors can use to see what opportunities are in the pipeline.

We have also used the procurement process to elicit input from our private sector. For example, the marketing solicitation that just concluded is a testament to our collaborative approach. We recruited a firm to help build the tools that the Department of Economic and Community Development needs in their efforts to attract new business and jobs. In a few weeks when all of the information regarding this procurement can be publicly disclosed, the record will show that the City broadly encouraged local participation. Many local firms chose not to apply for various reasons. In fact, of the seven proposers, only two were Richmond-based. Also, during the evaluation process, we used an evaluation team that included City staff and senior officials from some of our local non-profit economic development partners. Everyone on the evaluation team agreed with the outcome. Further, the winning bid includes participation from local businesses.

All of our procurements seek to find and hire vendors who have the background and expertise to provide the highest quality services to the City of Richmond. While it would be nice to always have public sentiment 100% in agreement with us when tough decisions are made, we cannot allow any politicization or manipulation of the process. This would betray the public trust. The evaluation teams perform their work according to state and local laws. An evaluation team’s decision is not overruled, influenced or changed by anyone. Moreover, once a procurement has been completed—contracts negotiated and signed by all parties--the documents become public record. The City also has a procedure for filing a formal protest if anyone believes they have been treated unfairly in the procurement process. In this most recent instance, no protests have been filed.

We cannot and will not alter a fair and legal process to get a more popular choice. Our procurement process is designed to select the best, and we will continually strive to improve and to increase opportunity for Richmond-based businesses.

We welcome those who join us in rallying behind the City’s own businesses. I remain committed to exploring ways to "Buy Richmond", even in the absence of changes to State law. But this commitment must be balanced by resisting the temptation to be insular. Richmond needs to be able to import and export talent, commerce and ideas.

Submitted by Mayor Dwight C. Jones