New Brunswick

Fear of collusion behind city staff reluctance to release bidder info

Managers at city hall are urging Saint John councillors to stand firm against attempts by the construction industry to change the way city contracts are tendered.

Construction industry says Saint John could save money if companies that pick up tender documents were known

City hall managers in Saint John fear release of names of companies picking up tender documents will result in less competition and higher prices for municipal construction work. (CBC)

Managers at city hall are urging Saint John councillors to stand firm against attempts by the construction industry to change the way city contracts are tendered.

The Construction Association of New Brunswick is lobbying councillors to make public the list of companies that pick up the tender documents they need to bid on paving, water and sewer work and other projects.

"We do believe firmly this is really not the right direction," city manager Jeff Trail told council when the issue came up recently.

"Staff is of the firm belief that by providing more transparency around who is competing on a particular contract we are decreasing the level of competition, and therefore [there is] very high probability that the costs overall are going to increase."

We don't want our contractors getting together and sort of saying, 'Well, we'll bid on this and you bid on that.- Shirley McAlary, deputy mayor

The city stopped releasing the lists in 2003 amid concerns contractors were colluding to drive up prices.

"We had outside people do the investigation but nothing came to be from it," said Deputy Mayor Shirley McAlary, who was mayor at the time. 

Senior staff, however, felt the city should be more selective with the information it releases, McAlary said Monday.

"We don't want our contractors getting together and sort of saying, 'Well, we'll bid on this and you bid on that.' We wanted to avoid that. We don't think that's a good way to do it for the municipality."

Different rules for different cities

Across the country, the rules vary among municipalities on whether the list of companies that pick up plans for a tender should be made public.

Fredericton does not release the lists, but Moncton does, if requested.

City of Moncton spokesperson Isabelle LeBlanc said it is considered public information.

"If a citizen or vendor submits a verbal or written inquiry to the procuring agency and requests the list of plan takers for a particular tender, it is disclosed to them, LeBlanc said.

Sault Ste. Marie, an Ontario city of 73,000, is among those that place lists of plan takers on the municipal website.

A plan-takers list for a municipal contract in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., which puts the information on its website. (City of Sault Ste Marie)
The construction industry argues companies wishing to be subcontractors would use the lists to reach out to the general contractors preparing to make bids. This competition for a part of the job could lead to lower tender prices for the city, advocates say.

"Every year we put it on the table and every year it's rejected," said Krista Collins, the general manager of the Construction Association of New Brunswick, Saint John region.

She said the change would result in greater competition for the work.

"That's what the city's not understanding. When you have multiple bidders and they know that there's multiple bidders, they're going to drive that price down, not up."

The issue has come before Saint John council twice in recent months. The matter was tabled following a lengthy discussion at a meeting May 1.

City staff have recommended the list only be released for special projects.

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