What do you get when you mix the District contracting process and politics?
In the case of the Washington Convention Center's $3-million-a-year food services contract, you get paralysis.
Convention Center officials have been trying to replace Sports Service Inc. as the food concessionaire for the past five years, ever since they received complaints about poor service.
But the contract has become caught up in the counterveiling forces of District politics, and there's no telling when the issue will finally be resolved. At the center of the controversy is D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), a mayoral candidate whose committee oversees Convention Center operations.
Luther H. Hodges Jr., a member of the Convention Center board and a supporter of mayoral candidate John Ray, said he finds it "embarrassing that this process is so politicized -- that the Convention Center can't reach a valid business decision."
"It has just been a ridiculously long period of time," said Hodges. "I'm not going to get into the politics of this, but it is sad that this has been so politicized."
Four years ago, the Convention Center held competitive bidding and awarded a new contract to a consortium involving Service America Inc. and National Business Services Enterprises, a minority firm whose principals include Arthur and Ruby McZier, two longtime supporters of Mayor Marion Barry.
But the contract was rejected by Jarvis's Housing and Economic Development Committee after questions were raised about an undisclosed business relationship between McZier and David Wilmot, who at the time was the general counsel to the Convention Center.
The Convention Center started from scratch and held another round of competitive bidding. In February 1989, the center's board decided once again to award the contract to the consortium of Service America and the McZier firm.
The Convention Center has yet to change contractors, and Sports Service -- a subsidiary of Delaware North Companies of Buffalo -- continues to operate the concession on a month-to-month basis.
The reason: Jarvis's committee has yet to act on the resolution approving the new contract.
The Convention Center wanted to submit the contract to the council last summer, but officials said they were discouraged from doing so by Jarvis's staff because of the press of other council business.
The bill was finally introduced in January, but it expired without action by Jarvis. It was introduced again in April and is awaiting action by the council.
Perhaps it was only a coincidence, but last December Sports Service and four other entities of Delaware North each contributed the maximum $2,000 to Jarvis's mayoral campaign.
What's more, Ruby McZier, who has an interest in the competing consortium, is now serving as treasurer of the mayoral campaign of Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.). Service America has been represented by another key Fauntroy supporter, former Maryland representative Michael Barnes.
Jarvis says that the Delaware North contributions and mayoral politics have had no impact on her handling of the matter.
She acknowledges the food service contract "wasn't acted on immediately," but says there has been no undue delay, nor any "impediment to the Convention Center serving food."
Last week, Jarvis held a hearing to examine the proposed new food service contract, and she says it is "possible" the committee will vote on the matter before the council recesses in a few weeks.
She said she has asked the Convention Center for more information to demonstrate that the new contract would -- as Convention Center officials contend -- generate additional revenue for the city.
Meanwhile, with the exception of Hodges, Convention Center officials have been extremely circumspect about the matter, reluctant to anger Jarvis, who has a reputation for aggressive oversight of the agencies under her control. Clarke's Letter Bomb
Council Chairman David A. Clarke, a candidate for mayor, has a long memory.
At a campaign rally Saturday, Clarke lambasted John Ray for his support of legislation five years ago that would have phased out rent control.
Clarke accused Ray of being unwilling to compromise on the matter, and as evidence he produced an envelope containing what he said was a personal letter he sent to Ray at the time. The envelope was returned unopened. Ray had scribbled a brief note on the front. "Mr. Chairman," he wrote. "I'm not interested in anything you have to say."