Chicago's red-light camera program would cost taxpayers more and would rely on radar guns under one of seven bid proposals quietly under review by City Hall in its effort to replace the scandal-scarred company that holds the current contract.

How the new proposal compares with those of the other six bidders, only Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration knows.

Emanuel's office is following the long-standing — and completely legal — Illinois practice of withholding records related to bids until a contract decision is finalized. But while Emanuel portrays his administration as "among the most transparent cities in the country," his adherence to bidding secrecy means Chicagoans don't get the same opportunity to oversee the decisions of public officials as taxpayers do elsewhere.

An Emanuel spokesman said the city won't release the competing red-light bids in order to preserve its "negotiating advantage" with the potential vendors. The new vendor will replace Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., which Emanuel fired after a series of Tribune disclosures revealed the company may have bribed the former city official who was crucial to selecting Redflex and oversaw its contract since it began in 2003.

Redflex recently lost a similar competition in Florida, but unlike here the selection process played out in view of the public, including the unveiling of all bids months before a preferred bidder was chosen.

"It's very important to us that the public be included at every step of the selection process," said Johnny Richardson, head of public procurement in Orange County, Fla., which is negotiating its red-light camera contract with the preferred bidder. "It is important for them to know that no one is getting their palms greased along the way."

In Orange County, the evaluation committee met in public to open the bids, to debate the proposals and to score the bids. Taxpayers were invited to the offices of county commissioners for their individual meetings with the bidding companies. And the potential vendors discussed their myriad differences in a public hearing after they were scored.

In Florida, it's a crime for public officials to meet, discuss or even to communicate on public contracts outside taxpayer scrutiny. In Chicago, not only is the secrecy legal, it is policy.

While many state laws like Illinois' allow governments to select contractors in secret, others like Florida open the process to more public scrutiny. In nearby Michigan, for instance, bid proposal documents are available to the public from the beginning of the selection process.

The only one of the seven Chicago red-light camera bidders to comply with Tribune requests to provide their bid packages was a company with its headquarters in Florida.

"We come from a culture of transparency," said Craig Waltzer, CEO of GovComm Inc. in Miami. "What we saw in Chicago was something that gave our entire industry a black eye. It's important that people trust everyone is playing by the rules and that it's all been aboveboard.

"For some reason, everything seems to be top secret," he said. "And it's really no big deal. We are capturing images of license plates. We're not landing people on the moon. There are no military secrets being employed here."

Waltzer's 84-page proposal details his company's schedule of fees, its list of subcontractors, references, experience, and its plan to replace the city's system of high-maintenance pavement sensors with above-ground radar to detect stoplight violators.

"Radar may have a higher initial cost, but it is more accurate (resulting in higher violation success rates)," Waltzer wrote in the proposal. "Radar is not subject to road construction disruption and does not require regular maintenance."

GovComm also lists its Chicago-based subcontractors, including a company called City Lights Ltd., which has been intricately involved in the operation and maintenance of Chicago's red-light program under the current vendor, Redflex Traffic Systems Inc.

Waltzer proposes a baseline $660,000 monthly charge for operation and maintenance of the 384 city-owned cameras installed by Redflex. That amounts to about a 10 percent increase over what Redflex charges, meaning the city would pay about $39.6 million for a five-year deal. There would be added costs for new camera equipment, relocation and other extraordinary expenses.

All six other bidders declined Tribune requests for their bid proposals.

That includes the Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions Inc., which benefited from the public process in Orange County by using public records to appeal how the bidders were scored. It has been named the preferred bidder there in a project to expand the county's 10-camera program to 80 cameras.

In addition to bidding for the Chicago red-light program, ATS in February was selected as the top bidder for Emanuel's new speed camera initiative and is in contract negotiations for that program. The mayor's office has refused to release the speed camera bids until a final contract is awarded.

ATS spokesman Charles Territo said his company complies with the procurement rules wherever it competes.

"It is our position that the decision on when to release our proposal won't be done until we receive permission from the requestor," Territo said, referring to Chicago officials. "If the rules of the procurement compelled us to release the proposal, we would certainly do so."

Emanuel's office refused Tribune requests for an interview, instead releasing the following statement through the mayor's press office:

"The City of Chicago releases and posts online all winning and losing bid information once a vendor has been chosen and a contract awarded, ensuring total transparency while maintaining a negotiating advantage that protects taxpayers' financial interests. Chicago is among the most transparent cities in the country when it comes to providing information about procurement, the bidding process, its contractors and subcontractors, and continues to make technology enhancements to make information accessible."

But Emanuel's office has repeatedly denied Tribune requests for City Hall records that might illuminate the mayor's decision-making.

The mayor's office last year denied Tribune requests for emails, phone records and other City Hall records related to Emanuel's decision to start a speed camera program, citing an exemption in state open records law for internal communications that precede a final decision on contracts or policies.

Chicago's red-light camera contract went up for grabs this year when Emanuel dumped Redflex following a series of Tribune reports about the cozy relationship between the firm and a longtime city manager who oversaw its contract, John Bills.

Redflex has since acknowledged it paid a longtime friend of Bills $2 million as a company consultant in an arrangement that "will likely be considered bribery by law enforcement authorities," according to an internal Redflex investigation commissioned in response to the newspaper accounts.

Both Bills and his consultant friend, Marty O'Malley, have denied any wrongdoing. But the scandal has cost Redflex its six top management executives as well as its largest contract in North America. Redflex contracts across the country have also come under scrutiny. The Chicago scandal was cited in Orange County when commissioners opted to go with ATS even though the Redflex proposal was ranked higher by staff.

dkidwell@tribune.com