MOST LOCAL governments have protections in place to insulate contracting from political interference. Not the District of Columbia: The D.C. Council practically invites losing bidders and their lobbyists to attempt an end run. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) has submitted a proposal to close off this obvious avenue for corruption. It’s time for the council to act.
City law requires any procurement contract worth more than $1 million to win council approval. The law is a legacy from the Marion Barry days, when Congress did not trust the executive branch. The impact today is toxic.
You could see that most recently in the council’s high-handed rejection of a contract to provide health services at the D.C. jail. A company had won a rigorous bidding process and been recommended by two successive mayoral administrations. The losing bidder orchestrated a lobbying campaign, and six council members — Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), David Grosso (I-At Large), Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) — decided their expertise in prison health care trumped the judgment of the professionals who had spent years evaluating bids.
The short-term effect of that can be seen in an April 20 letter from Mayor Muriel E. Bowser recommending continuing a sole-source contract with the current jail provider, which happens to be the outfit that lost out in the competitive bidding process after a consultant determined its services were costly and outdated. What choice does the city have at this point? The contract would cost $5.9 million through June 30. Officials are still deciding their next steps, but it’s clear they are not in the best bargaining position. They can’t interrupt health care at the jail, and rebidding the contract would be time-consuming and chancy, given the cavalier way the council rejected the previous award.
The long-term fix is to get the council out of the procurement business. The current set up invites mischief at best and corruption at the highly imaginable worst. Mr. Evans has twice introduced legislation to align the council with obvious good-government standards, but his bill has stayed bottled up in committee, largely because of opposition from Mr. Mendelson. Six other council members have signed on to the current bill. It is time this important piece of legislation be put to a vote — to support fair competiton and put an end to the council’s meddling in government contracts.