Apparently, open warfare will break out among companies vying for city contracts if San Diego City Council hands them a potentially dangerous tool: the right to request the public records of their fellow contractors.

Jim Ryan of the local chapter of the Associated General Contractors told a City Council committee on Wednesday that if the council were to require that contractors comply with the California Public Records Act, companies would “use this simply as a tool to butcher their competitors.”

“They all get along when they come to our cocktail parties,” Ryan said, “but when they’re bidding against each other, they’re not so friendly with each other.”

A proposed ordinance drafted by former City Attorney Mike Aguirre would not have covered documents related to procure the contract, though they could become public if the contractor sought to amend the contract.

Ryan detailed how he would use such a policy if he were a contractor by initially refraining from seeking a city contract. Then when the company that won the contract put in a relatively minor change order, Ryan said he would use the change as an excuse to use the city policy to request documents such as salaries, benefits and the schedule of the job.

He would store that away in a file. The next time the contract came up to bid, Ryan said he would use the information to figure out what his competitor would bid, then underbid the competitor by an incremental amount.

Councilwoman Donna Frye, who has advocated the measure to increase access to contractors’ records, said she was “sort of shocked” by Ryan’s deviousness, saying the proposal isn’t meant to harass a competitor.

“If that’s how you guys operate, that’s how you guys operate,” Frye said. “You might not want to operate that way.”

Frye said she didn’t understand why the public has a right to information when the government is performing a function, but not when taxpayer dollars are being sent to a private entity.

Councilman Kevin Faulconer said the consequences of a policy, whether intentional or not, would likely be “significant.” He noted that such a requirement could hinder small businesses and would be unprecedented in the state, citing a report by the independent budget analyst.

Councilman Todd Gloria said the idea of increasing public access could be important as the city implements managed competition, an issue I explored back in January.

Gloria noted that if city departments have to follow the Public Records Act and contractors don’t, it could put public officials at a disadvantage in competing with private companies to perform city work.

But Frye’s proposal wouldn’t only apply to managed competition, and Gloria said he wasn’t sure if records access was needed for all contractors.

“Whoever sells us paper clips, I’m not so sure I’m curious what they’re up to,” he said.

Frye said she would study the issue further with the contractors who opposed the proposal and the unions who supported it. She plans to bring back a recommendation to the committee.

RANI GUPTA

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