2018-01-25 / Views

Our federal government and its secret bidding

Why are people in government constantly forgetting that they serve the people who are not in government?

It’s nothing new, and something America’s founders expected. They set up safeguards in the Constitution to keep the scales weighted on the side of citizens.

More recently, Congress and state legislators followed with laws that, theoretically, prevent public servants from hiding aspects of their work from the eyes of their employers — us.

But it’s a constant struggle, and one we occasionally lose. Such was the case in recent attempts by the Leelanau Enterprise to review a copy of public documents in the hands of the National Park Service.

We had never made a request under the federal Freedom of Information Act until trying to explain to readers why two proposals were rejected from private companies hoping to renovate and lease the Sleeping Bear Inn in Glen Haven.

We went into the process unsuspecting. The concept seemed clear to us. Two firms wanted to lease property owned by the people. Their proposals should be made known to the people, who just might want to know if they agree with the Park Service’s decision.

But there was apparently a lot in those proposals that your eyes should never see, at least as far as government attorneys are concerned.

The two extensive proposals came back to us redacted — make that heavily redacted. They were both rejected by the National Park Service because they lacked financial backing, we were told.

Did NPS officials make the right decision? Heck if we know. There weren’t enough figures left to know if the bidders seeking to lease our property were asking for a sweetheart deal or were willing to pay far more than the inn could generate renting rooms.

Those redactions — whole pages in a row — was all explained away as preserving “trade secrets.”

Recall that we’re talking about a 5,000 square foot, empty building, not the Pentagon.

The kicker came when the names of the people behind the bids were redacted.

We called a very pleasant bureaucrat in Omaha at the NPS regional headquarters on that one. Ramona Turner seemed almost embarrassed as she provided the reasoning. Our FOIA request had been “kicked upstairs” — our wording — to some high-level attorneys.

“I want you to know it did literally take a village to do this one,” she said.

Ms. Turner explained that somehow the name of one of the bidders was “trademarked.”

“If that name was used, it’s going to be an unfair advantage making people think they have more money than they do,” she said.

Huh? We asked for the exact wording provided by the attorneys. Here goes:

“A competitor could use the name to try to convince possible investors that the McCarty group (one of the companies submitting a bid) doesn’t need money because of that name’s involvement. Additionally, if the name is not used correctly when being used as a trademark, it’s incorrect usage could dilute the trademark.”

Now this would all be laughable unless you added up all the money and effort required to protect somebody who has a big-time name and wants to do business with the federal government.

We were told that the Park Service asked the bidders if they wanted their information released before completing the FOIA request. And here we thought all along that such decisions about the release of public documents had their roots in established law.

All that said, we did talk to both bidders, who called the Enterprise when told by Park Service employees that we’d like to discuss the Sleeping Bear Inn. Both were open and genuine about their love for the inn. The person with the trademarked name, however, did not want her identity released.

She got her wish.

And under the subject of public information, Washington — eh, make that Omaha — wins.

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