IOWA CITY — The nine-member board that governs Iowa’s public universities this week will receive the four finalist bids for a 50-year, multibillion-dollar deal to operate the University of Iowa’s utilities system.
UI President Bruce Harreld earlier this week held a public informational webinar for the regents, spelling out plans for his campus’ public-private utilities partnership — including the expectation that it could provide $3-plus billion for the university over the life of the deal.
Harreld did not disclose names of potential partners — who would secure 50 years of reliable revenue via the agreement in exchange for a large upfront lump sum payment.
The UI plans to put that money into an endowment to generate interest annually toward campus initiatives.
The university has not disclosed a proposed amount of that upfront sum — although Ohio State University, which entered into a similar arrangement, secured $1.015 billion, plus a $150 million commitment to support academic priorities.
Board of Regents Executive Director Mark Braun over the course of the monthslong inquiry into the viability of a partnership has participated in several meetings “when the university was discussing RFP responses,” Board of Regents spokesman Josh Lehman told The Gazette.
Braun, like the other nine volunteer regents, will receive the four final bids this week, Lehman said.
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“If a vendor is selected, that information will be released publicly on Dec. 10,” he said.
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Dec. 10 — Tuesday — is the date of the scheduled meeting where regents will be asked to consider approving a public-private partnership for the operation of the $1 billion UI utility system.
Information about the chosen vendor will be released to the public at the start of the meeting, not before, Lehman said. The board will not take public comment during the meeting.
“The proposed public-private partnership has been discussed publicly for many months, including having numerous meetings on UI’s campus,” Lehman said.
Per board policy, he said, names of bidders and amounts bid are not released “until an award is made.”
That’s the same policy UI officials cited for The Gazette in withholding the request for proposals, even though board policy doesn’t mention release of an RFP, which traditionally is available to the public.
Early in its exploration of a potential public-private partnership, the UI hired a trio of consultants without soliciting public bids. Officials defended their hire of a law firm, engineer and Wells Fargo — without searching publicly — by citing the unique nature of the endeavor.
In then launching the initial request for qualifications, Wells Fargo shared a confidential letter and information memorandum with a select group of companies early — before publicly posting the document on the UI website.
The university has declined to say how many companies got the head start.
Randy Evans, executive director with the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said the “ongoing secrecy about this proposal is extraordinarily troubling.”
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“The university is not a private school. It is owned by the people of Iowa,” he said. “The public records law — and the guiding principles of the law — make it abundantly clear that the documents provided to prospective bidders and the names of the companies invited to submit proposals should be available to the public.
“It is greatly troubling that companies with no legal stake in the University of Iowa have received more information about this proposed venture than the people of Iowa have,” he said. “That’s wrong, and members of the Iowa Legislature and the public ought to make that crystal clear to President Harreld and members of the Iowa Board of Regents.”
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