As cloud of corruption passes in D.C., regular dysfunction back in spotlight

As cloud of corruption passes in D.C., regular dysfunction back in spotlight

The Washington Post

By Aaron C. Davis August 2 at 7:32 PM

Outside the mayor’s conference room, the line of D.C. cabinet secretaries and agency directors stretched down the hall. Each studied notes and prepared excuses, like schoolchildren awaiting a turn before the principal.

Inside, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) had begun the two-hour inquisition. At issue, however, was something more serious than a schoolyard dispute: more than $1.3 billion in mishandled taxpayer contracts.

“If there’s a problem like this,” Bowser told one of her new agency heads, “it’s your fault from here on out.”

After corruption charges in recent years brought down three council members and left a cloud of suspicion hanging over former mayor Vincent C. Gray, the District and its new mayor are trying to get back to the less salacious work of rooting out everyday dysfunction in D.C. government.

Early targets for Bowser are the late, botched and sloppy contracts that have led to cost overruns, rotten school lunches, deadly failures at the fire department and scores of chances squandered annually for better deals for taxpayers.

Bowser entered office as many of her predecessors had, promising to do better at watchdogging the District’s dealings with its many private contractors.

Whether her approach will succeed remains to be seen. Her effort began in earnest in June with the creation of a contracting review board, chaired by Bowser herself.

The plan took a step forward last week when Bowser’s administration delivered a report to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) detailing how in her first months in office — but mostly during the final years under Gray — the District repeatedly failed to execute contracts competently. The report spells out candidly that poor planning and coordination and shoddy work by executive agency staffers were most frequently to blame.

Two contracts that have come under public scrutiny this year involved food service at D.C. schools and the procurement of tablets to be used in dispatching emergency fire and medical responders.

Chartwells, the food-service vendor, has settled a lawsuit alleging that it provided rotten food to students. D.C. officials are now working to prevent the company from walking away from the final option year of its contract.

In the case of the tablets, a glitch in the new 911 fire dispatch system was blamed in part for a delay in sending paramedics to the home of a choking toddler who later died near American University.

Bowser’s effort to improve the city’s contracting process is aimed at avoiding such fiascos in the future.

In many cases, the failure to draft, vet and execute contracts on time has reduced the council’s ability to scrutinize agreements with vendors. Lawmakers end up being asked to approve contracts after the fact, often after services have begun, and the District could be held liable if the council does not give the green light.

Such retroactive approvals have happened more than 40 times already this year, with new contracts for city bike-share equipment, road salt for winter storms and management of more than $1 billion in health-care services.

Mendelson has strongly criticized Gray and, more recently, Bowser for truncating the council’s oversight role by thrusting contract decisions onto lawmakers after the fact.

“The intent behind it is excellent,” Mendelson said of Bowser’s plan for more internal scrutiny of her administration. “Particularly the way they will be looking at what went wrong with getting these contracts done in a timely fashion.”

The report, however, also touched a nerve between Bowser and Mendelson.

To “improve efficiency,” the report by Bowser’s new chief of procurement, George Schutter, recommended eliminating council review of many contracts.

“Some of the recommendations are self-serving in that they would expand the mayor’s authority” to sign contracts, said Mendelson, who, along with the city’s first elected attorney general, Karl A. Racine, has already chafed at numerous other proposals by Bowser to consolidate power in her office.

In the first meeting of Bowser’s Procurement Accountability Review Board, in June, the logjam of getting contracts to the council was a repeated theme. So was taking responsibility — sort of.

The Washington Post was given access to the review process, on condition that the information would not be made public until shared with the council.

A half-dozen agency heads, including Bowser’s chiefs of transportation, housing, general services and technology, each acknowledged that their departments had not effectively completed contracts that had been launched under the Gray administration.

It was an excuse that will get harder to make the longer Bowser’s team is in office.

Looking over the list of dozens of late contracts as the meeting ended, Bowser looked up at her staff and said the challenge was clear:

“We have got to do better.”

Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.

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