With Philadelphia about to spend an unprecedented $500 million to breathe life into its parks, recreation centers, and libraries, there's bound to be a fight or two over how to spend the money.
The public needs to get in the scrum early because it's their city and, mostly, their money. Right now there's disagreement between the Kenney administration and City Council over how expenditures in the Rebuilding Community Infrastructure program will be handled.
The administration wants to funnel Rebuild spending through a pair of non-profits, arguing that process would be more efficient and less vulnerable to outside influence. Staff members say the expansive building project is a first for the city, and that its ancient procurement protocols take too long.
Good-government goals can be achieved by putting safeguards in contracts and site monitors in the field, the administration promises. Those steps make sense, but it's not enough for the administration to say it will take them, it needs to guarantee it in writing.
It isn't routine for city government to use a third party to pay contractors. But releasing Rebuild funds through nonprofits for efficiency's sake shouldn't mean any diminishment of the public's right to information about specific projects, to attend bid openings or other meetings of the non-profits, or to impose city ethics laws on all aspects of the work.
Council is preparing to challenge the use of the non-profits, arguing that the city should retain complete oversight of Rebuild because it has the capacity to handle the work. Whether that's true is unknown. It could be that Council wants to add to the already oversize role district representatives play in planning development due to the archaic tradition called councilmanic prerogative.
If their objections are cover to put them in position to select Rebuild's contractors, they should check the City Charter, which gives the executive branch authority to choose contractors, not the legislative. Any additional input should come from experts, not Council members.
As for Council, it can legislate the rules for Rebuild contracts, making sure they include the transparency rules and diversity goals Council wants to achieve. It can hold hearings and hire its own monitors to make sure the goals are being met. But this shouldn't become another opportunity for Council to try to overstep its power.
The Kenney administration is involving Council by asking members to rank projects in their districts that should be given priority. The administration is also planning public meetings to get residents' input. Those discussions should include the need to close once-popular facilities that no longer make sense to maintain.
Beyond Rebuild, the procurement process in the City Charter should be streamlined but not by ditching the rule awarding contracts to the lowest responsible bidder. A move to replace the rule with so-called "value" bidding leaves too much room for favoritism to decide who gets a contract. The city can write specifications that disqualify contractors who have done poor work. It should do that.
With Rebuild, Philadelphia has a chance to become the city of the future it envisions. Cronyism should play no role; the best way to keep it out is to keep the public in.