As I was starting to write Part 3 of this series on "pay to play," I received an e-mail from an engineer who had a lot of cogent things to say about this subject. The writer has a third of a century of public service experience as an engineer, and 25 years of experience as a municipal engineer. My columns "aroused deep emotions … that reflect the negative impact upon the professional aspects of our discipline," the writer explained. (I have lightly edited what was said to protect the correspondent, who requested confidentiality with respect to name and employer.)
The experienced engineer offered the following perspective:
"There is a need and benefit to using consulting firms for governmental projects. … As the municipal engineer [in a small city], I had the discretion to select the appropriate consultant to provide an expert report on a specific problem. I realized that one [should] expect price differences for services relating to professional expertise and in-house costs. These differences are ultimately related to bid prices. It should be my responsibility to discriminate between/among all cost factors.
"But when politics enter the picture, ’other factors’ having nothing to do with engineering are instrumental in deciding who gets the work [in the case of my municipality]. Decisions were strictly based on political campaign contributions. (Emphasis added) Often it resulted in eliminating engineers who should [have been] hired and selecting those who should not have even been considered.
"There is no question in my mind that the standing of professional engineers in our state has been lowered as a result [of pay to play]. I have seen plans and specifications with no project-specific material [which should be provided by the consultant] added. Cut sheets are missing, [as well as] grades, inverts, and slopes on drainage pipes. The work [apparently has been] done primarily in the interest of political convenience and the municipal engineer’s role is diminished accordingly.
"I am confident that most P.E.s … who are involved in the public area are aware of the pay-to-play reality. It is common knowledge that several large consulting engineering firms have ’owned’ certain towns and counties, as well as state contracts, due to well-placed political contributions.
"My point: Contracts have been issued on the basis of political contributions rather than on ability to produce good engineering. Legislation may be in the works, but the practice will not end abruptly. There will [probably] be enough loopholes for some unscrupulous individuals posing as professional engineers [to continue to get work].
"The practices outlined above demean our profession! On a personal basis, I was a city engineer for 25 years, and during that time I endured much political pressure that threatened my job. Fortunately, I was a civil service classified employee, which helped protect me from retaliation by political animals in the municipal building.
"My unorthodox, candid, and detailed cost benefit analysis, distributed to all elected officials [without authorization], probably saved my job when one mayor attempted to privatize the engineering division. The effort was made [to replace me] to take advantage of the fact that the council president was a personal friend and golf partner of the president of the recommended consulting firm. To my benefit and surprise, the council president, a graduate engineer, had the insight to realize that, despite our mutual disagreements on some cases, it was to the municipality’s benefit to have me stay [on] as the city engineer. I survived over a year of repeated votes brought before the city council [to oust me] before the mayor gave up."
The writer’s most telling sentence iterated: "I am of the opinion that municipal engineers ’toe the line’ in order to keep their jobs."
I close this three-part tirade with additional input by a lone dissenter. The writer defended the pay-to-play system in my March column. He said, in part, "After reading [your column], I began to wonder how you survived so long in the cold cruel world. I can only attribute it to your competence. What you [include] in the pay-to-play category can range from the mayor appointing a close friend as town engineer, to giving a congressman $90,000 to stuff in his freezer. In most cases, what you term pay to play is nothing more than a simple expression of gratitude. The mayor’s friend, grateful for a well-paying prestigious job, is naturally going to support his friend’s party—otherwise he qualifies as an ingrate rather than a friend."
The dissenter ended with a parodied biblical reference, directed at me, I think: "Blessed are the naïve, for they shall inherit the kingdom of heaven, and maybe get a good consulting job, too."
Needless to say, while I believe that the writer was sincere in his comments and beliefs, I disagree with his conclusions regarding pay to play. It may not always lead to corruptive practice, but I am certain that quite often bad things result from accepting pay to play as a way of life when it involves engineers in government.
Alfred R. Pagan, P.E., P.L.S., is a consulting engineer in Hackensack, N.J. He can be reached at 201-441-9719; or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.