May 1, 2013

LAWMAKERS WHO vote “present” on an issue tend to be seen as fearful of taking an up or down stand. But the policy of D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) not to weigh in on the approval of city contracts awarded through a competitive bidding process should be emulated by his colleagues. Better still would be a change to the law that allows council members to routinely interfere with the process that procures government services and goods.

The controversial policy that gives council members the authority to approve any contract above $1 million took center stage Tuesday with the efforts by Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) to derail a health-care contract recommended by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). The contract, worth as much as $542.5 million through September 2014, to Thrive Health Plans was narrowly approved with seven votes. Mr. Grosso voted “present,” a stance his spokeswoman described as keeping with his belief that council participation in specific contract procurement is inappropriate and leads to an appearance of corruption. The best way to ensure proper contract implementation, he said in a statement, is with rigorous oversight.

Thrive’s proposal for managed care, The Post’s Mike DeBonis reported, was one of three contracts awarded and was rated the best of five bids that were received. Administration officials said a panel of health-care professionals evaluated the proposals and independent assessment was made by a contracting officer. Mr. Orange (who, incidentally, is being investigated by city ethics officials for allegedly trying to get city health inspectors not to close a produce market owned by a campaign contributor) claimed that Thrive was not properly vetted in a process that was flawed. Why then were no objections raised to the two other contracts that were awarded by this same process? If there was preferential treatment, why were no challenges filed with the contract appeals board, the body best equipped to review the intricacies of contract decisions?

The council’s sad history of handling contracts — the politicization of the D.C. Lottery contracts, the use of disapproval resolutions to shake down the city administration for favors — prompted Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) to propose legislation that would remove lawmakers from approving specific contracts but still allow proper oversight. The bill has languished in the face of opposition from lawmakers who don’t want to give up the power. Introduced last year, the bill has yet to even have a hearing. It’s time for the council to take it up.