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Guest opinion: New Orem school district survey process looks biased

By Richard Davis and Cissy Rasmussen - Special to the Daily Herald | Apr 19, 2022

The purpose of government office is to reward friends with lucrative government contracts granted without transparency in order to serve the policy ends of public officials. If that doesn’t sound right, it’s because it isn’t. Or shouldn’t be. But that is how we fear the new Orem Mayor and City Council may be operating.

Mayor David Young and the City Council decided to conduct a study of the feasibility of creating a separate Orem school district out of the existing Alpine School District. This effort has been undertaken previously and concluded that the result would be higher costs for Orem taxpayers. Nevertheless, the Council went ahead with another study.

Standard practice in such cases is to solicit bids from companies that specialize in this kind of study. And to do so in a transparent and inclusive process that minimizes the ability for anyone to engage in cronyism, i.e. rewarding friends with government contracts through a secretive, subjective process. That is how things are supposed to work.

But that is not what happened in this case. Typically, contract bids go through the city manager and the city’s procurement officer. According to the Daily Herald, that did not occur. The director of the newly formed Legislative Counsel — who the Council recently appointed outside normal hiring practices — determined who got the contract. There was no committee making this determination. That process does not smell right.

Not surprisingly, the recipient of the contract was Discovery Education Consultants, a company founded in part by a friend of a city council member. Discovery submitted the lowest bid. But there is good reason for that. They lack the bona fides to do the job because they have no experience with such feasibility studies.

The mayor says that the company owners have 100 years of experience between them. True, they have experience in other areas. LaVar Christensen was a state legislator. Paul McCarty was a school board member and a principal. Michael Wankier is a financial services officer. But that does not qualify them to conduct a school district feasibility study, particularly when there are companies that have long, proven records of doing that very thing.

In justifying their decision, the City Council said that Discovery had a “unique ability to interpret data and financial information for educational organization application.” In this case, “unique” does not mean superior. It means that they are unique from other companies that have experience in doing this kind of study.

One indication is that this company did not even exist until shortly before the bidding period opened. In other words, these company officers formed a company specifically to conduct this study. And, presumably because of their personal connections with the Council, this previously nonexistent company received the contract from Orem’s city government.

In response to a petition urging the Council to drop Discovery and choose a qualified company, the city issued a statement telling citizens that “you can trust the City Council to ensure that the study focuses on facts, not opinions.” It is difficult to believe that when all the signs point to a crony deal. Perhaps as disturbing is the fact that Paul McCarty already is head of a group attempting to split the Canyons School District. It appears the process will be far from objective.

The mayor and City Council need to do the following:

Revoke the current contract and start the process over again.

Go through the established channels of contract procurement. Make the process transparent and inclusive. That means it should include a committee of the city’s civil servants, not just one mayoral hire.

The criteria should be written so that fly-by-night firms are not eligible. A company should have experience conducting this kind of activity. That would be the best use of taxpayers’ money and help ensure an unbiased result. Cronyism should have no place in the business of Orem City government.

Mayor David Young and the City Council have an obligation to the voters to conduct the city’s business, not to serve their own interests or the interests of their friends, but to further the interests of the citizens of Orem. The mayor and the City Council have the opportunity now to make it right. They need to do so right away.

Richard Davis and Cissy Rasmussen are concerned citizens of Orem.

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