District lawmakers Tuesday considered two proposals to overhaul the city’s procurement process, which they said has long been marred by corruption and poor transparency.
But the bills — one proposed by D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and the other by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) — reveal widely divergent views of the council’s role in awarding millions of dollars in city funds to private businesses.
Mendelson’s bill would effectively strengthen council oversight and would require the Office of Contracting and Procurement to make more information about contracts and prospective vendors available publicly and to the council during the review process.
“If the council gets more information, that means the public gets more information,” Mendelson said Tuesday before a hearing on the bills.
Bowser’s legislation, however, would loosen the council’s grip on the process, allowing the mayor’s office to sidestep council review of additional option years for contracts that have already been approved. The mayor’s plan would also allow her office to avoid seeking council approval at times when vendors and agencies have modified a contract, pushing the overall cost past $1 million.
District law mandates council review in both cases, a process that City Administrator Rashad Young described as “administratively burdensome.”
“Our proposal would be that unless there were changes to the option after it was originally submitted, then we would have the ability to move to those option years,” Young said. “That saves a lot of time and processing both for us and the vendor.”
The competing bills come seven months after a fierce lobbying battle over the merits of a $66 million contract to provide health care at the D.C. jail resulted in the narrow rejection of the deal before the D.C. Council.
The council threw out the city-approved contract with Tennessee-based health-care giant Corizon Health, after prison rights activists drew attention to the company’s poor record and pending lawsuits in other states.
The event riled the Bowser administration, which cast the council’s interference as a form of corruption because, it argued, lobbyists influenced members. But council members who voted against the contract said that the fact that Corizon was selected, despite its alleged substandard work, was itself a sign of the procurement process’s failings.
Mendelson’s bill, which he introduced with six other council members, seeks to address that issue by requiring D.C. contracting officers to consider a company’s past performance, he said.
“The contracting office just ignored what was going on in other states” in the case of Corizon, Mendelson said. Evaluating such a track record, he added, “should be part of the process.”
The bill would also require the city’s inspector general to review all contract modifications or changes — a provision that Bowser’s chief procurement officer, George Schutter, dismissed in the hearing as extraneous and time-consuming.
“Changes and modifications are normal parts of contracting, and there should not be the implication that any change or modification” is inherently an act of corruption, mismanagement, fraud or abuse,” Schutter said during his testimony.
Meanwhile, Bowser’s bill seeks to restrict council members from discussing “confidential” information about a pending contract in a public hearing, a provision that opponents said would limit transparency.
“We would be very clear that no individual with undue influence — whether it’s the [would-be contractors] or other District personnel or staff, or anything coming out of the legislative body — can comment on the procurement while it is active,” Young said.
Supporters of Mendelson’s bill at the hearing on Tuesday included several labor leaders who testified that council review of contract option years and “tipping” points provides necessary transparency and a useful check on vendors who have failed to serve the public as promised.
In the hearing, Mendelson cited the council’s recent decision to challenge an existing contract for food services in D.C. schools during the option year review, after D.C. residents complained of shoddy service from the contractor, Chartwells.
“Our intent is not to remove the oversight of the council in contracting,” Schutter said. Rather, he said, “our intent is to reduce the duplicative processes” of having the council approve option years on a contract that has already been approved and on contracts that have run over a million dollars. “Tipping actions are time sensitive, and if not processed quickly can interrupt [services],” he added.
Other items in Mendelson’s bill ran into contention with the local business community.
The bill would require the mayor to implement “strategic sourcing” by advancing bulk purchasing for goods such as toilet paper or pencils, for example, rather than allowing agencies to purchase the goods independently.
The move could save the city tax dollars, but Bill Byrd, a small-business owner who testified, said it also paves the way for contracts with big corporations over small-business owners.
“Strategic sourcing is code word for ‘cut out the little guys,’ ” Byrd said. “I don’t think that is consistent with the obligation of government to create opportunities for local small businesses.”
One item in the bill that some of the mayor’s backers said they would support is the creation of an ombudsman to help mediate disputes between subcontractors and contractors. D.C. subcontractors often complain of delayed payments that they say harm local workers and businesses’ ability to work in the District.
Bowser’s bill includes an item meant to improve the “clean hands” verification of process, by restricting the city from contracting with vendors that owe the city more than $1,000 or 1 percent of a contract’s value, up to $25,000 in back taxes and other fees — something that Mendelson appeared to support.
Because both bills address the same topic, the council will probably use recommendations from the hearing to merge the legislation before a vote, Mendelson said Tuesday.