Mayor Bloomberg's School-Snack Bungle

Vending machine politics

Bloomberg dismissed these complaints as the old way of thinking: "Political red tape," he said then. What was important, he insisted, was that Snapple would provide a guaranteed minimum of $40 million over five years to help pay for school activities.

Fast-forward to last month, when the Bloomberg people were revving up media interest in the new healthy vending plan. As they broached this wonderful idea, they also quietly let drop that the Snapple deal had fallen short by at least $5 million, and that the city was ending its contract with the beverage company.

Another mayor in another time—back when newspapers cared more about the business of government—might have suffered a few bad press days after this kind of embarrassing flub. Bloomberg has no such fears. The news was relegated to one line in one paper, and that was that.

Stan Shaw

Last month, Education Department officials informed the Panel for Educational Policy, which, under the new state law, must approve school contracts over $1 million, that it was retaining Octagon again for the new vending initiative. Mayoral appointees control the panel, and the lucrative new Octagon deal was quickly rubberstamped. But dissident members got a chance to air their gripes. "We're paying them 15 to 18 percent of the contract, and it's not even clear what they're doing," said Patrick Sullivan, a public school parent who is Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's representative to the panel and who voted against Octagon. "There was no assessment of their prior performance."

Like the Snapple deal, the new one is similarly muddled, and not just because an award went to a firm that may have covered up a state investigation. Education officials admitted last week that the formal contract authorization request that they submitted to the panel described the only unionized firm, Canteen Vending, as offering the highest guarantees for revenue to be paid to the schools. Canteen was rejected, the report stated, only because its "vending machine operation/monitoring systems are inferior to the competitors."

The department's spokesman said this was "a misprint." Wasn't this a pretty long and involved sentence for a misprint? "I have no idea what that's about," he said. And the statement that the losing bidder made the highest offer? That was a mistake, too.

trobbins@villagevoice.com

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