Congressional attempts to require the District to award all contracts by competitive bid may lead to an overhaul of the procurement system, but additional steps may be necessary to provide assurances that the system is efficient and equitable.
District officials contend that 92 to 95 percent of the city's contracts are awarded by competitive bids. Those percentages have been challenged by the General Accounting Office, but there is more to this controversy than a dispute over numbers.
The issue is much broader than Congress' concern about competition in the awards of city contracts for goods and services. The administration of a cost-effective and equitable purchasing system is even more important to taxpayers and contractors.
Questionable purchasing practices in the past have shown that fairness and equal access are more critical to contractors than the relative merits of competitive bidding versus the awarding of contracts on a noncompetitive basis.
Indeed, the record of contract awards made by the D.C. government in competitive bidding over the years is filled with controversy. Unsuccessful bidders for contracts, large and small, have questioned the fairness of the competitive bidding process and, on several occasions, have accused city officials of making decisions based on political influence and favoritism toward certain contractors.
The current concern by some members of Congress apparently was prompted by the city's award of a fuel contract. Whether that contract was awarded through competitive bid or not remains in dispute.
According to recent published reports, the city awarded a $20-million-a-year fuel contract on a noncompetitive basis to a political supporter of Mayor Marion Barry. City officials say the contract was awarded on the basis of competitive bids but have not yet made public any documents to support that assertion.
Obvious weaknesses and breakdowns in the District's procurement system have been documented in the past, however, and this latest dispute suggests that D.C. officials haven't yet developed the kinds of contracting policies in which the business community can have confidence.
"It distresses me to think that the system of public bidding can't be trusted," a corporate executive said three years ago after his firm had failed to win a contract from the District, even though the company had satisfied contract specifications in submitting the lowest bid.
The GAO in 1982 criticized the D.C. government for what the agency described as "arbitrary and capricious" actions in awarding a contract for police vehicles to a local automobile dealer whose bid was the highest of three competitive bids. An investigation by the GAO showed that the District had used "unannounced evaluation criteria" to reject the lower bids after they had been submitted.
Even more serious charges were leveled against the District earlier this year when a former city government official charged that he was pressured by superiors to award up to $20 million in telephone contracts to the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. Again, there were allegations of political influence. The allegations in this instance have been denied by city and C&P officials.
An investigation by The Post last year showed that the District's purchasing regulations were among the weakest in the nation and contained few of the safeguards used by other jurisdictions to prevent abuses and ensure low prices for goods and services.
The same investigation uncovered several unexplained contract bidding irregularities, including evidence that "phantom" bidders had vied for some D.C. contracts.
"Although the city has set rules on competitive bidding for . . . purchases, it makes virtually no effort to enforce them," investigators concluded a year ago.
Mandating competitive bids offers no remedy for that shortcoming. Nor is intervention by Congress likely to build confidence among contractors.
Stricter enforcement of contracting policies is more important to vendors. Assurances by the D.C. government that the competitive bidding system is free of inequities and abuses should help dispel doubts about fairness in the system. A clear statement of policies and strict adherence to those policies should put to rest innuendoes and allegations of political influence and favoritism. Contractors expect that from the D.C. government, not Congress.
D.C. officials must seize the initiative from Congress if they hope to restore confidence in the competitive bid process and enhance the perceived business climate in the city.