Ordinance targets perception of ‘pay to play’ in Fort Wayne contracts

John Crawford

Aimed at combating the perception that political donations influence the awarding of city government contracts, an ordinance will be introduced Tuesday that would deny some contracts to individuals or businesses making campaign contributions in excess of state-imposed limits.

“I don’t have proof, but there’s the appearance of impropriety, that people are getting access or the ability to get contracts” by virtue of contributions to candidates, said co-sponsor City Councilman John Crawford, R-at large. “To me, it’s unseemly.”

The proposal would not cover contracts awarded through competitive bidding but would affect professional services and other contracts awarded without bids, stating that the city “shall not enter into an agreement or otherwise contract with any business entity for materials, supplies, equipment, goods or contractual services or any other consulting services . . . if within one calendar year immediately preceding the date of the contract” the business has made any pledge or contribution, including in-kind (non-financial) in excess of the $2,000 annual limit established under state law.

The ordinance is needed, the proposal states, because “ethical contractors seeking to avoid the perception of participating in ‘pay to play’ practices may refrain from seeking to do business with the city . . . (and) could lead to the city paying higher fees because the contractor must recoup contributions . . . (and) ‘pay to play’ practices will not stop through voluntary effort because government officials who participate may have an incentive to continue to accept contributions for fear of being disadvantaged relative to opponents.”

If passed, the ordinance would not limit limit anyone’s ability to make political contributions, Crawford stressed, but would affect only their ability to do business with city should their contributions exceed the limit. It would not cover contributions made before the ordinance’s effective date.

“We’re not trying to be punitive,” said Crawford, who in 2012 proposed an ordinance requiring the city to negotiate with at least three firms before awarding professional services contracts to increase competition and avoid the appearance of favoritism. The latest bill is co-sponsored by Jason Arp, R-4th.

Prior to entering negotiations or submitting a formal bid, a business entity would be required to submit a statement — subject to the penalty of perjury — that it has not made a contribution that would prohibit it from doing business with the city. Any violation could be waived if the business, candidate or official notified council and the excess contribution is returned. The ordinance also covers contributions made by intermediaries for the purpose of concealment.

Violations could result in voiding the contract, and the business entity could be disqualified from city contracts for four years.

Spokesman John Perlich said the city is reviewing the proposal, but added “we weren’t asked for input by the councilmen who’ve put this together. We believe the current processes are working well. A lot of good work by a variety of respected companies is taking place in the city . . . that are having a positive impact for residents, businesses and neighborhoods.”