Pitfalls of Henson's strategy

March 23, 1994

In just one year, Daniel P. Henson III has established an impressive record in his twin jobs as Baltimore's housing commissioner and director of public housing. Thanks to his background as an aggressive developer in the private sector, many long-stalled residential and commercial projects are finally going ahead throughout the city.

Unlike his predecessor, the professorial Robert W. Hearn, Mr. Henson is very much a man in a hurry; he does not intend to spend the rest of his life as a bureaucrat. He believes that if corners need to be cut, so be it. "Too many people are so preoccupied by the process that they get paralyzed by the process," he often says.

Yet government, by definition, is a system of carefully crafted processes. Those checks and balances have been developed over the years to protect the taxpayers from irregularities, sweetheart contracts and political cronyism. In procurement, voluminous and specific rules exist.

During his first year, Mr. Henson has made it clear he thinks many of those rules are too cumbersome to suit his time-table and style of management. So he just ignores them.

So far, the Housing Authority has awarded $22.9 million in non-bid contracts to renovate 1,136 public housing units, according to Melody Simmons' recent report in The Evening Sun. The lack of bidding has raised the eyebrows at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is looking into the situation.

"Any time you do something different in the government, you've got to expect to be investigated, probed or asked for information," Mr. Henson shrugs off. He says his decision to use his power to award emergency contracts without bidding is justified by the mess that existed in the Housing Authority when he took over.

Indeed, one of Mr. Henson's first decisions was to declare an emergency in that agency so that he could use some $20 million in unspent funds to repair huge numbers of vacant units and allocate them to some of the 23,000 families on the waiting list. "If I've got the money and I've got the units, why not find a way to expedite it," he argues.

Keeping up with constantly changing federal rules is a headache. But HUD officials have a reason to ask what's going on when contracts worth millions of dollars are awarded without competitive bidding, raising the possibility of favoritism.

The Housing Authority's board is now in the process of simplifying its policy to allow for swifter procurement. That is the way to go, as long as HUD -- which pays many of the bills -- is satisfied.

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