The D.C. government may have weakened confidence in the competitive bidding process last month when it awarded a contract for 90 vehicles to be delivered to the Metropolitan Police Department.

The decision to award the contract to Curtis Chevrolet is being investigated by the General Accounting Office at the request of Chrysler Corp. and Ford Motor Co., whose lower bids were rejected.

Even if the GAO concludes that there was nothing improper in awarding the contract to Curtis, city officials may find it difficult convincing some in the business community that the competitive-bid process in the District is conducted fairly.

The manner in which the District made the award to Curtis and the justification offered could have far-reaching effects on its ability to attract bids in the future.

Chrysler and Ford maintain the District violated established policy when it made the award. They further have charged city officials with developing a false justification for rejecting their bids.

The District's public invitations to bid for contract awards stipulate as a matter of policy that the procurement officer reserves the right to reject the bid of "a bidder who has previously failed to perform properly or complete on time contracts of a similar nature."

In the case of Ford, the lowest bidder on 82 sedans, the District--namely the Metropolitan Police Department--justifies its decision by alleging a high incidence of safety and repair problems experienced with cars it bought from the manufacturer last year.

Based on that claim, Police Chief Maurice Turner recommended that the District's Department of General Services (DGS) not buy Ford Fairmont models until "deficiencies experienced during law enforcement use are corrected."

But Turner made the recommendation in a memo dated April 1, almost a month after DGS publicly advertised the invitation for bid. Ford officials vehemently deny that they were told of any serious problems with last year's model before they submitted a bid to supply the 1982 model.

Bids were opened April 2, and three days later Ford was asked to submit an affirmative-action plan as the apparent low bidder, according to an official of the company. But after submitting that plan, he was informed that Ford's bid had been rejected, the official added.

Ford's bid on each of the 82 sedans was about $1,500 lower than the unit price quoted by Curtis. Chrysler's total bid for 82 sedans and eight station wagons was $134,387 less than the total quoted by Curtis.

The invitation for bids, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, contained no reference to past performance of vehicles used by the police department.

In the case of Chrysler, Turner concurred with his fleet management director's findings that, although the unit purchase price is lower, Chrysler's Gran Fury would be more expensive to operate than the Chevrolet Malibu.

What's more, Turner said, while the District hasn't had experience with the new Chryslers, fleet managers in other jurisdictions report frequent repair problems.

"I can't say that we have any worse experience with them than any other make," said an official in Prince George's County's Office of Central Services when asked about 1981 and 1982 Chrysler cars used in police work.

The same official emphasized that his department advises a supplier of any previous problems with its product before accepting a bid--not after the fact.

When asked if his office was advised of the D.C. police department's concern about Ford products before bids were asked, a DGS official replied: "No, we had no information to that effect."

Except for last year when Ford was the lowest bidder, the Virginia State Police Department has bought Chrysler cars consistently over the past decade. This year it is buying 450 Chrysler units. The department has had problems with Chrysler and Ford products, "but nothing exceptional," says property and finance officer Douglas Dix.

"The thing that's so surprising about this is that we've never gotten any feedback of this type of thing from the District," says Frank Henderson, director of government vehicle sales for Chrysler.

Turner says a cost analysis made by his director of fleet management showed "it would be more advantageous for the department to purchase the Chevrolets."

The issue has raised several questions in the business community, but two appear to stand out more than others. First, why weren't Chrysler and Ford told of serious deficiencies before they submitted bids?

Above all, why didn't the police department ask the DGS to enter into a negotiated purchase agreement if it preferred a specific car rather than formally advertising for bids?