The Ann Arbor City Council approved on Tuesday night DC-3, a resolution ordering an election and ballot question in November 2021 to amend the city charter as it relates to “best value purchasing” for city projects including public improvements. Rather than only considering price, the proposal will allow the city to make contract decisions based on capacity, experience, personnel and skill, among other qualifications.
Currently, the city charter in question permits contracts relating to public infrastructure improvements to be made with the “lowest responsible bidder,” prioritizing price over value. With DC-3, if voters approve the ballot question, the Council will be able to consider other factors relating to contracts, such as quality and values of the contracted company.
During the public commentary portion of the meeting, Ryan Husse, secretary treasurer of the Washtenaw County Building Trade and business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local 252 in Ann Arbor, called in to voice his support for the resolution, saying the current language is limiting.
“(This amendment) will give you and the taxpayers the ability to properly weigh in all the factors when awarding contracts such as letting companies employ qualified workers, investing in safety training, hiring local workers, paying adequate wages,” Husse said. “It would allow the city to properly award contracts not just on price, but on value — best value.”
Ann Arbor resident Robert Joerg followed up on Husse’s remarks, urging the council to vote for the resolution. Like Husse, Joerg said he believes it is important for the city to consider factors other than just price when hiring a contract company.
“Incorporating things such as training and safety and environmental records as well as local labor force participation are all critical to ensure the city is getting the best bang for its buck and ensuring that the city residents have confidence in the construction projects that are going on in our city,” Joerg said.
Later in the meeting, council members discussed the measure in more detail before voting on it. Councilmember Jen Eyer, D-Ward 4, sponsored the resolution. Eyer said she believes it is paramount for the council to be able to consider other factors and data collected on contractors during the hiring process in order to ensure the city is making the best choice.
“This provision needs to be changed if we want the (responsible contractor policy) to work as intended,” Eyer said. “The responsible contractor policy is supposed to give city staff a framework for gathering important information from bidders regarding skills, training of workers, quality of work, safety of job sites and more. Unfortunately, staff has no authority to actually consider the information that is gathered due to the current charter language.”
Councilmember Travis Radina, D-Ward 3, cosponsored the resolution with Eyer. Radina said ensuring quality infrastructure by a contractor’s value should be among the city’s top priorities. Since Radina joined council in Nov. 2020, he said there were three separate incidents when the lowest bidder was involved in a sewage spill and was potentially responsible for the damage.
Explaining a metaphor he credited to Eyer, Radina said this resolution was like shopping for a car and taking into account the vehicle’s safety measures, quality and environmental impact, as well as its price. Radina also said he believed the measure would be more financially feasible in the long run since it would proactively reduce the amount of damage caused by low quality contractors.
“Fiscal responsibility is critically important, and it is not fiscally responsible to automatically select the lowest bid without regarding the quality, safety, and value of the work being done, especially if there are costs and mistakes that set the project back, damage our environment or require us to redo the work,” Radina said.
Councilmember Jeff Hayner, D-Ward 1, was the only councilmember to vote against the resolution. One of Hayner’s concerns included presenting the ballot question on an off-election year and expecting an adequate voter turnout. Additionally, Hayner said he was worried the question’s language could confuse the voters.
“It seems like we’re asking a lot of the voter to understand,” Hayner said. “Lowest responsible bidder, what does that mean?”
Councilmember Ali Ramlawi, D-Ward 5, voiced some similar concerns before voting in support of the measure. Most notably, Ramlawi said he did not think it is necessary to hold a special election for this ballot question if there is going to be no other measures on the ballot.
“I just really have heartburn over holding a special election over something like this,” Ramlawi said. “I think the discretion over awarding contracts is still in the purview of council — we just have to do our homework a little bit more and ask more questions.”
In response, Radina refuted Ramlawi’s claim regarding the council’s ability and explained further what he views as the faults with the current charter.
“Because we are tied to the lowest responsible bidder, responsibility becomes binary,” Radina said. “A contractor is responsible or they are not. If we were to deem a contractor responsible because they were actually the best value or they were the best option on one of the projects, later on we could not actually use someone more responsible because we previously deemed that other contractor responsible by accepting their bid.”
The resolution passed 10-1, with Councilmember Hayner in opposition.
Summer News Editor Lily Gooding can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.