Saturday, March 07, 2009

Contractual Obligations

Back when I was an Angry Young Bureaucrat, the slide in our neighborhood playground was, by today's standards, a death trap. The slide was this giant red monstrosity: twenty feet off the ground, solid welded steel. If you weren't careful, you could get your tiny hand caught in the metal crevasses, and even if you were careful on hot sunny days, there was a good chance that you would burn yourself on the hot metal going down the slide. Of course, it goes without saying that this slide was built over the least kid friendly material in the world: concrete.

However, hundreds of children played on that slide yearly, and while some of us got hurt, we dusted ourselves off, learned our lesson, and went back to playing... more carefully this time.

Years later I went back to the old playground to find that, like all of the playgrounds in the City of Pittsburgh, it had been sanitized and pasteurized and euthanized for the protection of the children. Gone was the twenty foot rickety, death trap of a slide; it was replaced by a shorter, squatter, plastic abomination. Gone was the face shattering concrete; it was replaced by rubber foam and bark chip. Gone, it seems, was the death defying, but life lesson teaching, opportunities; it was replaced by a sad, safety.

I asked around why it had all changed. As it was relayed to me, some damned fool child somewhere didn't take proper precautions or thought he could fly or something and ended up smacking his head off the damned concrete. Rather than yelling at the child, as my parents did, the parents went off and sued. Cities across the country switched over to the new, safer equipment, and our culture lost a character building experience.

My point in that long rambling story is that it just takes one kid doing something stupid to cause people to overreact, and ruin something that wasn't doing any harm to begin with, if you weren't doing anything stupid.

That's kind of how I'm looking at this whole no-bid problem the City seems to be running into.

Public Works officials authorized spending $4,750 to create the 3-by-6-foot vinyl banners and $2,500 in wages and overtime to install them the week after the Steelers defeated the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game Jan. 18.

Pittsburgh City Council members have received three invoices: $1,425 on Feb. 18, $1,425 on Feb. 25 and $1,900 on Wednesday to pay the bill from H.H. Seiferth Associates, a Strip District sign-maker...

According to the city's Home-Rule Charter, contracts worth more than $2,000 must be competitively bid. Smaller amounts can be awarded without bids, and council is permitted to make exceptions when purchases must be made quickly.

On Jan. 15, Ravenstahl signed an executive order requiring professional service contracts to be competitively bid. It takes effect April 15.
The overreaction has been that now everything has to be sent out to bid. If you like transparency, that's great... but if you want to actually have civil servants to something other than writing up bid forms (you know: like doing stuff), you might get a little miffed.

Fine, those of us in City government will get over it. We'll do the extra layer of paperwork and the powers that be upstairs on the 5th floor will bask in the glow of "Governmental Transparency," all the time criticizing the departments for not getting stuff done.

And by June, mark my words, it'll all be forgotten and we'll be back to the same old crap.

Methinks that there are some folk in the Mayor's Office that would have benefited from the life lessons imbued by a swan dive from that old metal slide.

1 comment:

Bram Reichbaum said...

In re playgrounds: There's a new NBC show starring Amy Pohler, Parks and Recreation, which looks like it's going to address a lot of this ridiculousness.

In re the Steelers banners -- given what you say is true, there's really no reason to have broken it up into 3 separate contractual tranches, and thereby to have slid it past ordinary procedure. It's an extremely minor point, I'll grant you, and it's more minor than it is indicative of anything -- but it is more needless static and friction in our government. Why not just do things by the book and keep everybody happy?