October 17, 2013

“Mr. Chairman, please record me as voting present.” That’s the mantra that anyone tuning into a D.C. Council session has heard David Grosso (I-At Large) repeat nearly ad nauseam. It is an expression of his “principled protest” of the council’s involvement in approving contracts.

The District’s Home Rule Charter requires the legislative body to review and vote on contracts valued at $1 million or more. That doesn’t happen “anywhere [else] in the country,” Grosso told me. He also asserted that the council’s involvement facilitates a “pay-to-play” culture.

“I don’t know if what I’m doing is the best solution,” he added.

It’s not. Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are spent each year to provide goods and services — construction of schools, repair of roads and bridges, medical care, operation of group homes and career training, for example. Grosso’s decision to forgo his role in this significant part of the legislature’s business is an abdication of his fiduciary responsibilities.

“I don’t think this has anything to do with my responsibility to the public,” Grosso said in his defense. “I think I’m stepping up.”

Dorothy Brizill, co-founder of the good-government organization DC Watch, doesn’t agree: “He never comments about problems with any particular contract. He never puts anything on the table to cause people to think.” Moreover, she said, removing the legislature from the equation means the executive gets to spend millions “without oversight.”

Government contracting is often a prime source of waste, fraud and abuse of public resources. During the past 10 months, for example, Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration has sent to the council for approval more than two dozen contracts — after money has already been spent on them. Some of those retroactive approvals, involving change orders and other modification, were for projects completed in 2011.

Why is the government paying contractors two years after the work was done?

Grosso and Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans (D), who is running for mayor, have proposed stripping the council of its authority to review and approve contracts. However, Evans, unlike Grosso, has continued to offer his yea or nay on contracts.

This week, the duo picked up major support. Ward 5 Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D), chairman of the Committee on Government Operations, has proposed repealing contract-approval powers and leaving the council with only the opportunity to review those agreements, according to a draft campaign finance reform bill, a copy of which was provided to me. The legislation would, among other things, enhance disclosure requirements for campaign contributions and restrict the amount of money that limited liability corporations can donate in an election cycle.

Does contract reform belong in a campaign finance bill? They seem incongruent issues. McDuffie, the council’s chairman pro tempore, said the proposal evolved from concerns raised during hearings about campaign contributions’ links to the council’s contract-approval authority.

“This is the first step. It ultimately would have to go before the voters,” said McDuffie, acknowledging that, unlike other sections of the reform bill, such an amendment to the charter would require voter or congressional action. “If I had my druthers, it would be on the ballot for the November [2014] general election.

“Contract approval is inherently an executive function,” continued McDuffie, adding the council would still be able to “check” the executive through its oversight and a more “robust” contract review process outlined in his bill.

“We have lots of different ways we can get involved with how the money is spent,” said Grosso, citing the budget process, performance hearings and agency oversight hearings.

Too often, however, those are aerial operations. A deep drill rarely occurs. Oversight isn’t one of the council’s strengths. Both McDuffie and Grosso argued that the council rarely disapproves a contract. Perhaps training and other efforts to expand members’ contract-analysis skills are better solutions, rather than stripping them of approval powers.

McDuffie’s decision to weave together contract approval and campaign finance could prove controversial, particularly if it’s perceived as an attempt to circumvent Chairman Phil Mendelson’s Committee of the Whole; that’s where the Grosso-Evans bill has resided, without public hearing, since it was introduced earlier this year.

“Because it deals with the Home Rule Act, it is not properly in [McDuffie’s] committee,” Mendelson told me. Is a rift developing? The two have been allies since Mendelson selected McDuffie as second chair.

McDuffie denied any attempt to get around the Grosso-Evans bill. Further, he said the contract measure is “proper” action for his committee. “This helps eliminate the perception of pay-to-play.”

That’s Grosso’s hope also. But, said Mendelson, “A legislative body by definition is political. Politics by definition is representative democracy. Politics plays a role — large or small — in every recommendation.”

And anyone who thinks politics will ever exist without the influence of money is dancing through Oz.

jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com