September 18, 2012

REVIEWING THE MESS made by D.C. officials of the lottery contract award, the city’s inspector general took aim earlier this year at the D.C. Council’s authority to approve or reject every city contract in excess of $1 million. The council, concluded Charles J. Willoughby, should consider “whether such reviews and/or approvals are better conducted by its exercising its legislative powers through the promulgation of law and policy, rather than nullifying the results of the competitive bid process.”

The sound recommendation to depoliticize procurement is being advanced as legislation by D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). The council should cede the prerogative to meddle and approve this needed reform.

Mr. Evans, chair of the committee on finance and revenue, plans to introduce a bill Wednesday that would eliminate the law requiring council approval for large contracts; such a change would be subject to a citywide vote and approval by Congress.

Enacted in the mid-1990s, the law was supposed to be a check on the mayor but, as Mr. Evans told us, “It’s been abused,” contributing to a pay-for-play culture in which council members are subject to influence by potential vendors. Witness the still-unanswered questions that surround the lottery contract, in which the offer deemed by professionals to be the best deal for the city was rejected amid backroom machinations and discussions. Then, too, there are other shenanigans, like those of council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) who regularly puts holds on contracts as a means to shake down the administration.

“Contracting,” Mr. Evans said in announcing his proposal, “should happen through a merit-based selection process that is insulated from political pressure.” It’s a sensible proposition that unfortunately faces resistance from council members who don’t want to give up any power.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), while acknowledging the system is vulnerable to abuse, nonetheless told the Washington Examiner that the change would weaken the contracting process. “We have the leverage to get information and to bring issues to light and to ensure that contracts comply with District law,” he said.

Really? We would challenge Mr. Mendelson to provide examples of where the council’s supposed diligence got the city the best deal or to explain why the District should remain pretty much unique among local governments in giving lawmakers the ability to choose which company gets its toilet paper business. Under Mr. Evans’s proposal, the council would retain oversight power and could hold hearings on suspicious contracts. Council members who are serious about cleaning up city government will support the Council Contract Review Repeal Act of 2012.