Thumbs up on two ballot questions

File: Mayor Jim Kenney speaks during a news conference in City Hall in Philadelphia, PA on May 2, 2017.

Back in the bad old days of the 1940s, the Republican machine that had run City Hall since after the Civil War was crumbling under pressure from young, aggressive Democratic reformers, many of them returning veterans of World War II.

One of the items on their agenda was a City Charter that set down the rules of governance for the city. The reformers, led by Joe Clark and Richardson Dilworth, used the charter, adopted in 1951, to sweep away some of the corrupt practices of the past. One of the reforms was a requirement that most city goods, purchases and services be determined by low bid.

It made sense. Republican cronyism had installed “pay-to-play” as the rule of the day in city government.  Contractors and other doing business with the city had to join in the game.

Now, 66 years later, the Kenney administration and professionals in city government think it is time to end the sealed-bid system.

A proposed charter change will appear on the primary ballot Tuesday at Ballot Question No. 1 that amends the charter “to allow for the award of certain contracts based on the best value to the city.”

We urge voters to vote “Yes” on Question 1.

The sealed-bid system is an antique of another simpler age. City officials say they are dealing with more complex projects – overhauling the city’s computer systems is an example — in which the lowest bidder is not always the quality bidder.

They complain that contractors have learned to game the system, by filing ridiculously low bids then making up the difference by submitting “change orders” with additional charges.

The best-value system calls for the city to negotiate with bidders to assure not only low prices but also high quality of work. It allows the city to assess their past performance, as well as their willingness to have a diverse work force, while also taking price into consideration.

The best-value method is used in the federal government, the state and in 18 of the 20 largest U.S. cities.

The argument against best value is that it will open up the government to corruption and sweetheart deals to favored businesses. We don’t see it that way.  While human nature may not have changed since 1951, government has.  Most of the people handling contracts are professionals, not party hacks. We have an inspector general, a chief integrity officer and an ethics board to monitor government activities, not to mention the city controller.

The Kenney administration promises to enact regulations that make the process transparent by making public details of how contracts are awarded so outsiders – including the news media — can view them with a critical eye.

There’s always a risk that a bad apple will come along, but we think that having a modern, flexible system is a plus – for the city and its taxpayers — that outweighs potential negatives.

Question No. 2 on the ballot calls for creation of a community reinvestment commission to help deal with the city’s large problems.  The idea, originally advanced by Council President Darrell Clarke, is to bring together the collective wisdom and resources of the public and private sectors to help develop (and possibly help fund) programs for low-income communities.

Frankly, we are skeptical of the limits of what commissions can do, but do not want to rule out the chance that this group could be effective and achieve its lofty goals.

We urge voters to vote “Yes” on Question 2.