Loose Lips

Council’s Contract Oversight: Often a Waste of Time

When it comes to oversight hearings on city contracting, the D.C. Council sure knows how to waste time.

Every few months, the council gets roped into and riled up over some relatively low-dollar contract dispute, like the horror of having a Baltimore-based company cutting the city's grass, and spends several hours grandstanding, wandering off topic, and ultimately not resolving anything. It would be funny, except that these sideshows distract from Council's long track record of missing massive fraud and ignoring systemic problems.

The latest brouhaha occurred yesterday. It was a four-hour hearing on whether to disapprove a $12.7 million contract to turn around Ward 8's United Medical Center. Councilmember Vincent Orange is pushing his colleagues to reject the contract because he says the winning bidder—Chicago-based Huron Consulting—did not abide by the letter of the law when it switched out its Certified Business Enterprise partner after submitting its initial bid.

None of the prime contractors who bid on the contract and lost filed a protest with the city's Contract Appeals Board, nor did they bother to testify at yesterday's hearing. But still Orange says Huron's wrongdoing was so egregious that the need for redress transcends the hospital contract. Nothing short of the fate of the city's 1,200 CBE-certified companies, says Orange, is at stake.

From the opening statements of the councilmembers present at yesterday's hearing, it was clear that Orange doesn't have the votes to disapprove the contract. But the council pushed forward anyway, providing the following highlights:

  • James Staton, director of the city's Office of Contracting and Procurement insisted several times that he could not publicly discuss details about the contracting process, even though many of those details have been posted for quite some time on the Council's website.
  • Harold Pettigrew, director of the city's Department of Small and Local Business Development, tweeted something (now deleted) about an unnamed person's lack of leadership skills. The tweet was obviously aimed at Orange, who questioned Pettigrew about it on the dais.
  • Marion Barry, Ward 8 Councilmember and former mayor for life, who spent a significant amount of time grilling a white executive from Huron about the number of African-Americans who work at his firm and not much time talking about Huron's plans for turning around the single biggest employer in Barry's ward.

"Welcome to Washington," Barry told the Huron exec. Yeah, welcome.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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