Y2K Glitch Leads Council to Cede Control
By Vanessa Williams
D.C. Council members, pushing to get the District's computers ready for the year 2000, decided yesterday to give the city's chief technology officer almost total control in awarding millions of dollars of computer-related contracts.
Despite the concerns of some members that one official should not have nearly unilateral authority to spend taxpayers' money, the council unanimously adopted an emergency measure to exempt Chief Technology Officer Suzanne Peck from seeking council approval for contracts worth $1 million or more. That is the amount at which council approval generally is needed.
"This is too much power vested in one mortal person," said council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large).
The exemption was requested by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who said the contracting review and approval process was hindering Peck's efforts to upgrade the city's computers. The city is so far behind schedule in addressing the Y2K problem that the Clinton administration agreed last month to give the District $60 million in emergency money.
Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7) reminded his colleagues of allegations of contract-steering in previous administrations. "The council review is an obstacle, but it's a needed obstacle," Chavous said.
But David Catania (R-At Large) urged his colleagues to resist the urge to micromanage. "We have to have confidence in the people we confirm," Catania said.
He also said council members did not have the expertise to second guess Peck's contracting decisions. "We could put our collective knowledge of Y2K in Suzanne Peck's little toe," he quipped.
The Y2K problem occurs in computers that were programmed to recognize only the last two digits of a year. Such computers need to be reprogrammed or they may read "00" as "1900" and shut down or work improperly when Jan. 1, 2000, arrives.
The legislation approved by the council gives Peck wide latitude in negotiating and selecting firms to do this work. It also permits her to do sole-source contracting, as opposed to competitive bidding.
Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who moved the legislation on Williams's behalf, accepted some amendments and tried to resist others, arguing against measures that would bog down the chief technology officer. But her colleagues persisted.
The council approved an amendment -- proposed by Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) -- that gives the council 72 hours to review contracts that have been negotiated by Peck. Another Cropp amendment permits the council to block contracts, but such action would take a "super majority" -- nine of the council's 13 members -- as opposed to a simple majority.
Chavous also complained that Peck's office has a poor track record so far in doing business with local and minority-owned firms. He had language added to the legislation requiring Peck to file monthly reports on her efforts to increase contracts with local small businesses and minority-owned businesses.
Other emergency legislation did not fare as well at yesterday's session.
A proposal to boost the salaries of nonunion employees of the city's Commission on Mental Health Services failed by one vote, even though the money for the raises is in this year's budget.
A bill that would have permitted the police chief to waive academy training for law enforcement officers hired from federal agencies was withdrawn after council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) complained that he had not received a copy of the measure before the meeting began.
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