TRANSPORTATION officials in the District put out a request for contractors in July 2010 to provide administration, design and construction for streetcar facilities in Northeast Washington. Of the seven companies that responded, four were deemed qualified and were invited to bid on the project. A panel of experts last fall made a selection and its pick was, in turn, subjected to further scrutiny by city procurement, fiscal and legal officials. But what should be a final, pro forma step — signing a properly negotiated contract — is now anyone’s guess because of a misguided city law that gives D.C. Council members a free hand to meddle in contracts.
The monkey wrench in the $50 million contract to advance the H Street transit line comes courtesy of council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8). Under rules that make any contract over $1 million subject to council approval, Mr. Barry filed a disapproval resolution that — unless contravened by council action — would delay the contract for at least 45 days, adding to the cost of the project. Mr. Barry told The Post’s Tim Craig that he’s not so sure about the need for a trolley and that he is just doing his job in safeguarding city dollars. Administration officials countered that Mr. Barry is notorious for using disapproval resolutions as bargaining chips.
The city’s plans for a streetcar line have been subject to long and repeated debate, so it’s hard to view Mr. Barry’s action as anything other than the “11th-hour shenanigans” described by council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3). The real outrage, of course, is not that this one contract may be held up but that the city’s elected officials refuse to reform the rules, largely unique to the District, that inject politics into what should be a dispassionate procurement process.
Why, as seems to be the case here, should a contract be held hostage to other agendas? It’s neither fair to the firms that spend time and money to bid for projects nor to the public, which inevitably will have to pick up the tab for this gamesmanship. Even more pernicious is the fact, as was made apparent in the controversy over the lottery contract, that council members’ personal opinions about contract seekers influence decisions about who gets the public’s business. Anyone who wonders why businesses are generally the biggest givers to council members’ political campaigns and constituent service funds need look no further than the up-or-down power members hold over contracts.
The council’s authority over contracts is a legacy of Mr. Barry’s years as mayor and Congress’s belief that the executive needed to be kept on short leash. The council’s role should be to work with the mayor to ensure a professional and apolitical procurement operation, provide oversight and cry foul when abuse is suspected. It shouldn’t be the source of that abuse.