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OPINION - Something Wausau's City Council can do right now

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Theres something unusual, and unethical, in the emails that have become public since Brad Marquarts forced departure from Wausau City Hall. As public works director, Marquart had a great deal of control over city contracts. In one email he reminded a city contractor a landscaping company that if a city project cost more than $25,000 it would have to be put out to bid.

The company, as reported in the Wausau Daily Herald, submitted a bill that was $874 below the limit. Marquart advised them in a separate email that a project that came in at $24,999 would arouse suspicion. The newspaper report says those were the conversations between Marquart and Revi Designs, the company that worked on the bird sculpture that now adorn the Highway 52 median.

(Although its a separate and unrelated subject, its an outrage that Marquart leaves his city job with a $50,000 severance payment, health insurance for the rest of the year, and a letter of recommendation. His future employers will have to Google him to get a full picture of Marquarts on-the-job performance.)

The citys $25,000 no-bid limit seems very high. Thats a lot of money for department heads to sign-off on without having to comparison shop. In fact, thats an amount thats at the kickback level where an unscrupulous contractor might offer money to a city official to do business with them. Theres no indication that such shady dealing happened in Wausau. In other cities, greasing the hands of the decision-maker on a $25,000 invoice would be thought of as the cost of doing business.

Heres something the Wausau City Council can do immediately to reign in the power of over-aggressive department heads that seem to cut their own business deals: lower the bidding threshold. Id suggest $5,000. Thats still a lot of taxpayer money for city staffers to spend without oversight. Projects over $5,000 might still go to the companies that have them now but theres always the possibility that someone else might undercut them.

For contracts that have to go out to bid, the kind of exchange between Marquart and Ravi would be illegal. Competitive bids not only insure the city is getting the best value for its money, it also makes it more difficult to steer contracts to favored companies.

The bidding process doesnt have to be complicated or slow. Companies that do business with the public sector already know some projects will be bid-out. This is a change the city council should make today.

Chris Conley
7.29.14

Image: Wausau City Council via wsau.com