Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

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Reporting on municipal contracts

August 10, 2016

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Robust business stories often start with contracts, but what’s the connection between contracts and business stories? Contracts reveal the DNA of a project whether it be your local airport, public safety department, university or hospital. This blog outlines how and why to find municipal contracts for your business reporting, and how to file a public records request.

Why business reporters should write on municipal contracts

Virtually anyplace with a budget deals with contracts. But for the purposes of this column, let’s use small-town USA as our example. A city’s economic development boils down to new projects, whether those be new housing, a new community center, fixing potholes or building new roads or bridges. This means signing contracts with contractors, architects and others.

In writing on municipal contracts, discover:

  • Who and what kind of companies is the municipality doing business with?
  • Who is getting the contracts and how much are the contracts going for?
  • Who runs the companies?

Then you can look into degrees of separation between the heads of the companies and the entity.

Finding municipal contracts

So how do you get your hands on a contract? In the case of covering municipalities (the bread and butter of beat reporting) projects will easily surface if you’re a city council or county meeting regular. It’s also as simple as clicking into the council agenda online. Once there, you’ll find the following:

  1.  An RFP or a request for proposal. When a new project starts, a municipality also has to put out an RFP, which starts the bidding process. Let’s say the city needs to patch potholes. It would put out an RFP for building and construction folks.
  2. The bid opportunities. These are often right on the city’s website under generic departments including engineering and budget and finance. Many cities now use vendor portals such as Planetbids to consolidate the whole process. Even a glance gives you an idea of what projects are going on–e.g. parking enforcement or more parks. The portals allow you to see the bidders, winners and losers.
  3. Sources. Go to your sources and ask them to give you the inside scoop on the bids.
  4. Road and highway contracts over the past few years. Take a look at what companies won and lost the business–is there a pattern?
  5. Engineering contracts. Find out: Do the companies who win the contracts employ executives who used to work for the city or even the state agency that awards those contracts?

Filing a public records request

Contracts aren’t always readily accessible, however. If you can’t access a contract through one of the options above, you’ll want to file a public records request.

Individual states have their own statutes to govern open meetings and access to public records. You’ll want to know the laws in your state and what you’re entitled to.

A good resource is the National Freedom of Information Coalition’s state-by-state guide to freedom of information laws. The NFOIC also provides request letter templates for each state that cite the proper statute needed to obtain the information you’re requesting.

Following organizations that advocate for open public records is a good idea as well. Groups like the NFOIC and the First Amendment Coalition often provide services through their blogs and websites like updates on important laws and even legal hotlines you can call when you have a question.

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