DURING THIS week's D.C. Council hearing on a city auditor report critical of contracting in the mayor's office, City Administrator Robert C. Bobb indicated that D.C. government service requires officials to be sensitive to the outward appearance of their actions, or "optics," as he called it. We believe more than that is at stake. The public's confidence in government rests on integrity and trust in its leaders. At issue during the hearing was whether officials operating out of the offices of the mayor and city administrator circumvented the city's contracting laws. The public record -- not a public facade -- suggests that they did.
Mr. Bobb maintained that the city's payments of more than $150,000 to four consultants -- three of whom Mr. Bobb knew from his former job as city manager of Oakland, Calif. -- were justified for services rendered. He acknowledged that there were errors, but he maintained that they were technical violations of procurement laws based on ignorance, not malice. Mr. Bobb's explanations drew close examination by D.C. Council members Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), chairman of the council's Government Operations Committee, and Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large). Both lawmakers seemed less inclined to chalk up the violations to innocent oversights -- and for good reason. The auditor's report suggested that the consultants were being afforded preferential treatment because of their association with Mr. Bobb. That conclusion was echoed by Mr. Orange (also a mayoral candidate), who said the public might conclude that the hiring of consultants by Mr. Bobb's office was based "not on what you know, but who you know."
Clearly the hiring of Rosie Rios -- a fourth former associate of Mr. Bobb's from Oakland -- seemed less than an arm's-length transaction. Ms. Rios was added to a contracting team involved in the city's campaign to attract Major League Baseball to Washington. Mr. Bobb said he turned to Ms. Rios because she had similar experience attracting baseball to Oakland. Ms. Rios walked away from the District with $7,644.91, including $1,800 for nine hours of talking with Mr. Bobb and $1,600 for eight hours of Internet research. (She had charged $200 an hour for 16 hours of discussion with Mr. Bobb, reports staff writer Yolanda Woodlee.) That is nice work if you can get it, which is what can happen with noncompetitive, sole-source contracting.
Mr. Bobb testified that the Williams administration has learned its lesson and will institute training programs to ensure that staff members understand and obey procurement rules. The council, of course, should go him one better. Open and fair competition in government can result from close oversight. City lawmakers, the inspector general and the D.C. auditor should not hesitate to supply it.