Government system challenged
Critics say existing contracting processes aren't open or clear

by Nancy Gardiner
Northern News Services

NNSL (Mar 12/97) - NWT contractors and MLA Yellowknife Centre Jake Ootes want a formal policy framework for negotiated contracts.

Of 62 members of the NWT Construction Association polled informally at a recent luncheon, all agreed they are against sole-source and negotiated contracts. They have been asked for a show of hands at last week's annual general meeting of the NWT Construction Association in Yellowknife.

This year alone, $30 million worth of public works projects will go toward sole-sourced and negotiated contracts or similar mechanisms that avoid the public bidding system, says Ootes.

Some MLAs have asked cabinet to develop a government-wide policy on sole-sourced and negotiated contracts on several occasions.

However, Ootes says it's not a popular stand many of his MLA colleagues nor the communities.

Ootes introduced a motion in the most recent session of the legislative assembly calling for defined contracting policies that will apply to all GNWT departments.

"Unfortunately, the house recessed and so the motion will be carried over to the next sitting of the legislature," Ootes told construction association members.

The only policy in place in this regard is the Negotiated Transportation Contracts Policy, he said.

Between 20 and 25 per cent of the territorial government's contracts by the departments of Public Works and Transportation, among others, are sole-sourced, negotiated or let through vehicles such as construction management proposals and site superintendent services, Ootes said.

This "could lead to suspicion of political manipulation." And it goes against private enterprise because it eliminates the need for competition.

All of these methods are closed and owners of businesses are not allowed to view the process or in some cases, find out how much the contracts are for, he said.

The "invisible process" if taken too far, could lead to large monopolies or community-based business dependent upon government largesse, he cautions.

He did gain one concession last year. The government is now required to publish an easy-to-read manual detailing negotiated contracts. Some have now been published.

But that is just a start. There is a need for these policies to be clearly defined, fair and transparent, says Ootes.

Ootes says he can't reject sole-sourced contracts outright, since there may be legitimate needs for it. But he maintains there needs to be a definite written policy.

One local businessman who asked to remain anonymous said the government tendering process needs to be more open and the rules need to be clearly spelled out.

He also said he feels there's more than just construction contracts that need to be looked at. And he wants the government to make it clear what contractors are allowed to know and what information would be given to competitors after the fact.

About six weeks ago, a local contractor approached Ootes to look into the non-competitive contracting process, specifically construction management proposals. His concern was an absence of feedback for unsuccessful bidders.

What also concerns Ootes and contractors is that government may be spending too much money on these contracts and they are uncertain how they are evaluated.