The Miami-Dade County website makes a big deal about its procurement "cone of silence"—a term popularized by the old TV comedy "Get Smart"—which is meant to describe the county's system for preventing forbidden communications in response to requests for qualifications. When, this past summer, the county sought to hire a construction manager for a $1.5-billion sewer-repair program, a lack of specific language about communication while the so-called cone was in force engendered confusion more appropriate to a comically inept spy like Maxwell Smart than to a critical improvement of the infrastructure and environment of a major U.S. metropolitan area.

Miami-Dade's cone of silence "prohibits any communication regarding a particular RFP, RFQ or bid solicitation after they have been advertised," the county states on its website. This approach "is designed to protect the professional integrity of the procurement process by shielding it from undue influences prior to the recommendation."

Two firms seeking the sewer- upgrade contract, AECOM and CH2M Hill, scored very similarly in last summer's first competition, with AECOM in the lead based, initially, on a bigger presentation. After that round, CH2M Hill emailed selection-committee members directly and—just before the second round of presentations, after it had the chance to review all of AECOM's proposal—made a big supplemental submission.

The committee then gave the edge to CH2M Hill. AECOM believed CH2M Hill had withheld a description of its project approach from the first round of presentations and that, once it learned AECOM's approach and the selection panel's comments on it, CH2M Hill gained an unfair opportunity to piggyback on AECOM's ideas.

In November, an ethics review of the procurement by Joseph M. Centorino, counsel to the Miami-Dade ethics commission, said there was nothing technically wrong with what CH2M Hill did—there was no prohibition of submissions of text to selection-panel members between presentations—and the rules about the cone were unclear. Despite the CH2M Hill submission being declared legal, Miami Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez scrapped the first selection and set up a second panel, which chose AECOM. CH2M Hill now is fighting that move, saying AECOM exaggerated in a verbal exchange the number of similar jobs on which it had served as prime contractor.

Whatever the outcome, Miami-Dade allowed what should have been a tightly refereed competition to evolve into a free-for-all that invited competitors to look for loopholes. However, we applaud the county staff's recent efforts to tighten up the communication rules regarding RFPs and forbid unrequested submissions. Such maneuvers give qualifications-based procurements a bad name.