March 18, 2013

TO THE LIST of worthwhile projects derailed by the D.C. government’s notorious contracting process, we can now add rehabilitation of the streetlight system. The award of a contract was voided this month in a ruling that faulted the city for unfair treatment and undermining the integrity of the procurement process. It is but the latest reminder of the sad state of how the D.C. government acquires goods and services and another reason why we hope Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) is serious about making procurement reform a priority.

The Contract Appeals Board ordered the city to withdraw its award of a streetlight contract worth $100 million over a five-year period. Among the problems cited in an opinion written by Administrative Judge Maxine E. McBean was unequal treatment of the bidders and a failure to identify a contracting officer responsible for the procurement. The District is now back at square one with a project that would bring economic and environmental savings through the installation of energy-efficient streetlights.

The decision comes months after a contract award for installation of taxi “smart meters” was thrown out because of “pervasive improprieties.”These actions highlight long-standing problems with contracting and the government’s seeming inability, over successive administrations, to resolve them. It’s telling that the city’s newly created ethics board recently discussed whether to seek an expansion of its jurisdiction because so many of the complaints it receives center on contracting.

“No one likes the status quo,” said Mr. Gray, acknowledging the problems in last month’s State of the District address and promising changes. His spokesman told us the contracting office is currently soliciting proposals for an outside consultant to identify the flaws and recommend changes.

It’s pretty clear that one issue, identified in successive efforts to revamp procurement, centers on personnel; the competence of employees varies, training is poor and oversight is spotty. The revelation that the official in charge of contracting for the Department of General Services had previously been forced from office by the old federal control board for alleged contracting irregularities has done little to inspire confidence, particularly since the information surfaced after his September arrest for drinking while driving. J.W. Lanum, the Washington City Paper reported, was spotted asleep in his car outside the Reeves Center on a Friday afternoon with an an open bottle of wine.

It’s probably prudent to take another look at rules that might need revamping; in particular, we urge elimination of the often abused law that gives the D.C. Council the authority to approve contracts above $1 million. But, as the Contract Appeals Board has now spelled out in these two rulings, the problem is often not with the rules but rather with the failure to follow them.