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'Picnicgate' no day in the park for Smithsburg

June 07, 2009

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When I was a boy, my dad told me that on Judgment Day, every thought that anyone had ever thunk would be played back for the entire world to hear, and that a lot of people (by which he meant me) "are going to be really embarrassed."

I suppose this was to discourage me from having impure thoughts, but the net result was I went around trying not to think at all - a habit that I carry to this day.

In Smithsburg, it seems, someone either is thinking too much or not enough.

Our constitutional right to publicly squabble over the price of covered picnic tables is what makes this nation great. The town of Smithsburg wanted to build five of them. One table cost $2,250 (must be a good picnic table), and five cost $11,250.

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Under town charter, any expense of more than $10,000 must be advertised for bids. But Mayor Mickey Myers sidestepped that inconvenience by breaking the project in two. Project A would consist of four tables for $9,000, and Project B would consist of one table at $2,250.

So far, this is sounding like a math question on a school standardized test: If a picnic table leaves the station traveling at 60 miles an hour ...

But the upshot is both contracts were for less than $10,000 (and did not need to be advertised for bid), even though most reasonable people would agree this was all part of one, single project, the value of which was greater than $10,000 - and hence, should have gone to bid.

Myers said the project was funded by state money that would have been lost had the town not spent it by June 30. That deadline could not have been met had the project been subjected to the lengthy public bidding process. (There also was some talk about whether the initial project called for four picnic tables or five, but forget that for the moment - this plot is complicated enough as it is.)

So it seems clever on its face. The project is small change, and splitting it in two circumvented the bureaucratic red tape that could have killed the initiative altogether, leaving Smithburgers with no place to eat their hot dogs.

Nevertheless, the town council was not amused. The issue rapidly escalated into "Picnicgate" as the mayor fell under criticism for handing out contracts (in this case to a contractor who has on occasion employed her son) without giving all builders an equal chance at the work.

Public bidding serves two worthwhile purposes. It keeps public officials from passing out contracts to their friends, or to those who might be willing to repay the favor in kind. Second, it saves the taxpayers money by forcing bidders to try to submit the lowest price for which they can do the job and still earn a profit.

As this relates to picnic tables, there is little advantage to be gained - this project isn't the Union Pacific railroad, and the amount of money involved would buy few favors and is unlikely to have saved taxpayers more than a few bucks if it had gone to bid.

But here's why it matters. As my dad also said, if you can't be trusted in the little things, people will have a hard time trusting you in the big things.

Yes, the law is bothersome; no, playing fast with the rules in this instance doesn't really hurt anything; yes, we tend to admire people who go outside the box in order to get things done.

But public officials are better off when they stick to the standards with which they are entrusted to by the voters. If you are a mayor, which would you rather have: One extra picnic table for the town, or the confidence of the town residents that, when confronted with the option, you will abide by the letter of the law and do the right thing?

Smithsburg Town Councilman Donnie Souders Jr. was on the right track when he said, "Even if their intention was not to circumvent the law, they did it and it doesn't look kosher."

This isn't some grand case of corruption. When the town needs a new vehicle, Myers isn't going to award no-bid contracts for the tires and the spark plugs and the steering wheel until she has enough parts to assemble a whole car.

But it is a reminder that, especially in small towns, small details are important. If $10,000 is too tight a constraint, raise the bid kick-in level to $20,000. Until then, townsfolk, I would guess, would be more comfortable with a mayor who has a reverence for legal details, rather than a propensity to think up ways around them.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video at www.herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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