"The city loses $30 million to $40 million each year, budget analysts estimate, because contracts are poorly written, are not competitively bid and are plagued by cost overruns."
-- The Washington Post, July 20, 1997.
IF VETERAN readers of this newspaper experienced feelings of deja vu while reading front-page stories yesterday and on Sunday about District officials violating rules governing spending and no-bid contracts, it is quite understandable. As illustrated by the excerpt above, accounts of the District's poor contracting practices -- brought on by poor managers, nonproducing workers and a weak system of accountability -- have appeared in The Post before. The difference in this latest tale of contracting abuse and lax oversight is that it occurred on the watch of a mayor whose commitment to reforming the engines of government was supposed to make stories of contract abuse a thing of the past.
As many will recall, contracting problems were the stuff of legend during the various administrations of former mayor Marion Barry. The Post reported on July 20, 1997, that in the previous two years just 50 percent of city contracts were awarded on a competitive basis. What's more, only 1 percent of the staff handling contracts was professionally certified in procurement. A few months earlier, the city had sent 100 procurement officers to a week of classes. At week's end, they were tested on contract regulations: About 70 failed. Even under the D.C. financial control board, which was supposed to approve all contracts, auditors found that one agency had divided a $2.1 million contract into six small contracts "to circumvent competitive bidding procedures," while another agency was caught dividing a $1 million contract into 10 installments "to avoid review," the story said. In fairness, however, the record will also show that the D.C. government was not the only transgressor of competitive bidding practices. The financial control board itself committed millions in tax dollars on a "sole source" basis.
The city certainly is in better financial shape today. But how disappointing that the old corner-cutting "sole source" mind-set that caused so much financial and political trouble for the District in the past is still part of the government's culture. The public can be forgiven for having believed otherwise. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), after all, has repeatedly given such assurances, and with little contradiction from the D.C. Council. Yesterday the mayor's communications director, Vince Morris, said in an e-mail statement: "It's important that people remember that while unfortunate, the actions of a few individuals do not tarnish the overall progress the city is making. Fortunately, most of the examples cited in the recent Washington Post stories are old, and in some cases dating back to the control board era." The city is making improvements in a procurement system that "was completely dysfunctional during the 1990s," Mr. Morris said.
Does that mean the awarding and spending of city contracts are no longer suspect? Where is the evidence of action taken against employees who fail to uphold the highest standards? Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, wants to investigate the matter further. The mayor, who promised reforms, needs to be heard on these questions.