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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Home Run or Foul Ball

The Ethics of a Competitive Bid Process

Baseball was big in Trinity, which welcomed visitors with a giant billboard proclaiming "Youth Baseball Capital of the West." No one was more proud of that fact than newly appointed City Manager Marshall Zaner, who was a native son of Trinity and whose Babe Ruth team had competed nationally. In fact, one of the key reasons he took the city manager's job was the prospect of building a new baseball field at the 132-acre Trinity Sports Park.

Because of his long-standing involvement with the local youth baseball association, Zaner recommended they be given the contract to manage the project and build the new facility. The non-profit "Friends of Youth Baseball" had been incorporated to build, support, and maintain youth baseball fields, and counted among its members the city manager and two council members. "I'm thrilled to have this opportunity to continue to work with the city," said president Patrick Rust. "Our children and their children will benefit from this first-class field."

The groundbreaking was a community-wide celebration, and Zaner couldn't hide his pride and excitement when he introduced his 8-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter as two of the players who would "put the field to good use." But two months later things began to unravel. A union representative complained to the city council that there had not been a competitive bid process for the $2.3 million project, leading the council to halt site preparation. The contract had been awarded to non-union Easton Construction, whose founder Bill Easton coached youth baseball for 20 years. His firm built the baseball fields at the two local high schools, both on time and on budget.

The city manager was faced with two choices: terminate the existing construction contract and seek new bids, or retain Easton. More than his reputation was at stake. Any delay would jeopardize the opening, which was scheduled for the summer.

Zaner presented both alternatives, but recommended the council stick with Eaton, a local business with a proven track record. "We could save two months on the construction process," he stressed, "which will assure that we will have a field in place on opening day." During a heated city council meeting, the mayor spoke in support of a new bidding process, saying "Mr. Zaner has obviously lost his perspective on this issue" and is sending the wrong signal for future public contracts."


  1. What did the city manager know? What should he have known?
  2. If the no-bid contract was a purposeful evasion of the city process, would this impact your decision as a council member?
  3. What would you do if you discovered it was merely an oversight? Would your decision be different?
Jan 1, 2000
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