January 16, 2013

Part One: ‘Responsible Bidder’ Does Not Mean ‘Union-Only’

Just before the Christmas break, the St. Louis County Council passed a new ordinance that changed the definition of what a “responsible bidder” is with respect to county construction projects. The idea of having a government choose the “lowest responsible bidder” for construction projects is to ensure that taxpayers get a conforming product at the best possible price. I think we would all come up with fairly similar definitions of what a “responsible bidder” looks like. But from a legal perspective, the term is intended to capture the idea that those bidding on a government project (1) can reliably perform the services needed, and (2) can do so at the price promised.

As articulated in the legal treatise Antieau on Local Government:

[L]ocal government officials are not limited to the quality and suitability of the article to be provided but can consider the bidder’s experience, skill, ability, business judgment, financial situation, integrity, honesty, possession of the facilities necessary to perform the contract, previous conduct in similar contracts, reputation and record for reliability, as well as any other factors reasonably relevant to a bidder’s successful performance if awarded the contract.

Antieau notes that at least one court has found that “discretion exercised in choosing the lowest responsible bidder must be based upon substantial difference in quality or adaptability.” Taken altogether, these observations make clear that contractors of similar talent, reliability and quality should be considered on basically even terms in a “responsible bidder” legal construction. If a contractor can do a job reliably and well, the real distinguishing mark should be the price.

But in Saint Louis County, this may no longer be the case. The county’s new ordinance requires that for a construction contractor to qualify as a “responsible bidder,” he or she must “participate in or maintain their own Department of Labor-approved apprentice program for each craft which the firm employs and have active, registered apprentices for each program.” The law further requires that “all on-site employees on the project will be employees and that there will be no use of independent contractors or ‘leased employees’ for on-site work.”

“Apprenticeship programs” are almost always an artifact of union membership. Very few non-union shops “participate in or maintain” such programs, let alone always have “active, registered apprentices for each program.” The latter requirement of “active apprentices” has nothing to do with responsible bids, but it does have everything to do with keeping non-union contractors out. Which, of course, is why it was included. The county’s move will affect all sorts of small businesses, as the St. Louis American‘s Adolphus M. Pruitt noted last month.

The bill restricts non-union contractors from bidding on County projects, thus prohibiting any minority-owned general or prime contractor from County construction work. The bill restricts contractors who don’t have active apprentices. The strange thing about this is that most unions will profess that they are not accepting apprentices. … And the number of minority apprentices active in their programs is dismal.

That is especially bad news in today’s terrible economy. I will explore the “independent contractor” aspect in Part Two tomorrow.

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