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D.C.’s dizzying contract problems

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DISTRICT OFFICIALS had high hopes of rolling out new taxi meters by Inauguration Day so that passengers would be able to pay easily with credit cards. Similarly, they have talked about the great savings, environmentally and economically, that would be realized with the installment of energy-efficient streetlights. Both worthy projects, however, have been put on hold because of D.C.’s maddening problems in awarding contracts.

In a ruling that should serve as a wake-up call for corrective action, the city’s Contract Appeals Board threw out a $35 million contract for installing “smart meters” in the city’s 6.500 cabs, citing “pervasive improprieties.” The stinging rebuke by a panel of administrative law judges faulted the “meager” documentation offered by the city to justify the award, and it detailed “numerous unexplained and glaring errors, inconsistencies and oversights that clearly occurred” during the procurement.

Meanwhile, the board is in the midst of a separate case in which vexing questions have been raised about the events surrounding the award of a five-year contract to manage city streetlights. After another bidder protested the award, the city pulled back the lucrative bid, and when the original winner lost out, it yelled foul, raising issues that the Contract Appeals Board seems to be taking quite seriously. Ricard Ivern, chief executive of Citelum North America, which is protesting the city’s actions, sardonically told us that he is used to having to call his firm’s headquarters to report on questionable contract procedures but little did he expect to encounter such problems in Washington.

A spokesman for the Gray administration acknowledged problems with the taxi contract, noting that the contract manager who handled the project for the city’s procurement office was dismissed. But he expressed confidence in the outcome for the streetlight contract, which was managed by the city’s transportation department.

The city’s problems with procurement cut across departments and have persisted for years. Poor training, lax practices and a D.C. Council that prefers to meddle in individual projects rather than insist on systemic reform has led to one controversy (think lottery, parks and recreation, grass-cutting) after another.

The only bright spot of late has been the Contract Appeals Board and its critical, impartial review.

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