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Amid scrutiny of no-bid contracts, Council may send Homewood deal back to the starting line

Fencing surrounds Homewood Field.
Jakob Lazzaro
90.5 WESA
Homewood Field

Pittsburgh approved a $300,000 contract with a community group in July to teach neighborhood kids about tending the turf at Homewood Field. But City Council appears poised to repeal that arrangement amid broader scrutiny about how city issues contracts to outside providers.

The city is in the process of a major renovation of Homewood Park which includes the development of a regulation-size football field. The project has been spearheaded by Homewood Community Sports, a nonprofit athletic organization, and the city agreed to hire the group to provide “community liaison services” that include job training for kids interested in grounds management. Mayor Ed Gainey's office sees the venture as a form of violence prevention.

None of the money allocated for the $300,000 contract has been spent, but Council President Theresa Kail Smith introduced a measure late last month to repeal the arrangement. She said the city has an obligation to allow other groups to bid on the proposal before awarding the work to Homewood Community Sports.

She argued the city should open a “Request for Proposals” period to allow other groups to respond. Typically, an RFP process could take a couple of months, but Kail Smith said she’d be happy with a shorter timeframe.

“Even if it's just for a week. I just want to make sure that we're doing it,” Kail Smith said. “Let’s make sure that we all feel comfortable and that it’s legal.”

City Council preliminarily approved Kail Smith’s measure to repeal the contract authorization Wednesday. A final vote is scheduled next week.

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Council’s action was criticized by Gainey’s office Wednesday. Mayoral spokesperson Maria Montaño called it “a sad day for the community of Homewood,” arguing that neighborhood kids “largely stood to benefit from this program.”

Gainey’s office argued that a formal RFP process wasn’t necessary because Homewood Community Sports is “uniquely positioned” to connect kids to workforce training opportunities by teaching them how to care for the field.

City officials can skip a traditional bidding process when a job requires vendors with “unique” expertise. But the practice is part of a larger review by the Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala.

Zappala’s inquiry, which began in August, stems from a controversial no-bid contract between the city and Matrix Consulting Group for an evaluation of the city’s police staffing levels. The study found that the city has an adequate number of police officers — despite the bureau employing at least 100 fewer officers than it’s been budgeted to have — and suggested patrol units be significantly decreased.

Zappala first directed his office to investigate the city’s dealings with Matrix in August, after he claimed to have heard concerns from “public and private officials.” Zappala later claimed that Matrix’s study was designed to reach a “preordained outcome,” though Gainey’s staff have largely dismissed the study’s findings.

Gainey’s office has repeatedly rebuffed Zappala’s inquiries as “playing politics” during campaign season. Zappala, though previously a Democrat, is running for re-election as a Republican against Democratic nominee Matt Dugan, Allegheny County's chief public defender, this November.

Montaño repeated that sentiment Wednesday, though she didn’t say whether she thought repealing the Homewood contract was related to concerns brought up by the DA’s office.

While Gainey could veto Kail Smith’s bill to repeal the contract, Montaño said only that he is “weighing all of his available options,” because “this is a tremendous opportunity for the neighborhood of Homewood.”

If Gainey were to veto the bill, it would be the first time he has used that power since taking office over a year and a half ago.

Kail Smith acknowledged that even if a formal RFP process were followed, the end result would likely be the same.

“I think that this organization will probably most likely surface as the same organization that receives it, because it's accomplishing what the administration is hoping to accomplish,” Kail Smith said.

Montaño dismissed the need to start the contracting process over. But she said in any case that the Gainey administration is “doing all that we can to make sure that the new Homewood Field has met with the resources it deserves.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.