D.C. Council votes to extend grass-cutting contract with Baltimore-based Lorenz
By Tim Craig and Mike DeBonis,
The D.C. Council voted Tuesday to pay a District contractor until the end of the year to mow grass on city land but will hold a hearing Friday to sort out whether Mayor Vincent C. Gray exercised “undue” influence on the contracting process.
At Gray’s request, the council allocated about $1.2 million to pay Baltimore-based Lorenz to continue its work through the growing season, along with District-based Community Bridge. But the city plans to rebid the contracts in the coming months as Gray (D) tries to follow through on a campaign promise to award more work to D.C. companies.
“This is about how committed we are in the District to our local business and what kind of preferential points we give them,” said Chris Murphy, Gray’s chief of staff.
On Monday, a Washington Post editorial questioned Gray’s oversight of the contract, reporting that his administration tried to cancel an extension of Lorenz’s contract, despite the company’s efficient, cost-effective service.
Lorenz won the contract to maintain the grass in Wards 3 through 8 last year after it submitted a proposal that stood to save the city millions of dollars over the next lowest bidder. CBI, a District-based company, was awarded the contract to mow grass in Wards 1 and 2.
Both 12-month contracts included four one-year extension options.
But earlier in the summer, amid concerns of a possible council rejection of the contract, the Gray administration began taking steps to oust Lorenz, despite an estimated $4.6 million in savings over five years.
Lorenz’s attorney, Randy Alan Weiss, raised objections Tuesday.
“It doesn’t make sense not to renew the contract when it was approved in a fair, legal and competitive bid,” he said in a statement.
The Department of Public Works informed Lorenz on Friday that it should stop work because it would probably not be paid. At the same time, the administration signaled to the council that it wanted to move forward with a contract extension for CBI. The city has certified CBI as a local and disadvantaged business, giving it preference points in city procurement.
But by Monday evening, amid questions from the media and council officials, the administration decided to temporarily extend both contracts pending a more comprehensive review, said council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3).
“I found out they were going forward with CBI but not going forward with the other ones, but then they changed their mind,” said Cheh. “I think because the light was shone upon it.”
Cheh plans a hearing to answer questions raised since The Post’s editorial.
The Post’s editorial board obtained e-mails from Lorenz’s attorney, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, that show Gray and his legislative staff were involved in trying to cancel Lorenz’s contract extension. But large portions of several e-mails were redacted.
Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) requested Tuesday that Cheh push to have Gray hand over the full text of memos.
Murphy, who organized a conference call Tuesday, said the documents were redacted because of possible legal concerns. “There is nothing nefarious in these documents,” said Murphy, adding that they may be released in a few days after he consults with Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan.
Cheh said it did not appear that the Gray administration did anything “illegal” but worries there could have been “undue” influence exerted to cancel Lorenz’s contract.
The council is also expected to explore whether CBI is truly based in the District. Some council members have expressed concern that CBI has a D.C. address but keeps equipment in Prince George’s County. Murphy said city officials visited CBI on Tuesday and concluded that it meets the definition of a local company.
It’s unclear whether the hearing will touch on the role of council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), who objected to the Lorenz contract when it came to the council last year.
“I cannot believe . . . that there was no local vendor closer than Baltimore that should have won this contract and hired our residents,” Thomas said at the time.
In an interview Tuesday, Thomas denied he tried to influence any decisions but declined to comment further.