The awarding of an emergency contract to repair the intersection of Howard and Lombard streets sparked an unusually heated confrontation yesterday before the city's Board of Estimates, as minority contractors accused the winning bidder of not doing more to include minority businesses in the $1.35 million contract.
Jessup-based Cherry Hill Construction won the contract on a 3-2 vote, with City Council President Sheila Dixon and Comptroller Joan M. Pratt voting no, saying the company should have tried harder to include minority businesses.
But the dispute offered an illuminating glimpse at the politics of government contracting. Minority contractors hurled innuendo about possible bid-rigging and an "old-boy network" in contract awards, arguing the credibility of the city's minority participation program was at stake in the dispute.
Dixon and Pratt responded by urging the contractor to try to hire a politically influential minority businessman who had lost out on the job.
Mayor Martin O'Malley, who worked last year to revive the city's minority contracting law after the previous law was invalidated by a federal judge, voted to award the contract after giving the company a public scolding.
"All I can hope is that, gentlemen, you will be able to increase [minority participation]," O'Malley told the company, which promised to work to include more minority firms in the contract. "I'm still holding out hope, gentlemen. I'm thinking you can do it on this one."
The dispute has its roots in the water main break that damaged Howard and Lombard streets two weeks ago, when a CSX Transportation freight train derailed and caught fire in a tunnel below the intersection. Repairing the intersection is expected to take four to five weeks.
With light rail and downtown traffic disrupted until then, the city sought emergency bids for the job from more than 30 existing city contractors, and received three bids by the Monday deadline.
In emergencies, city officials said they typically waive minority contracting goals. This time, they decided contractors should try to reach the goals, but said they would grant a waiver if such efforts failed.
Cherry Hill Construction came in with the lowest bid. At $1.35 million, its bid was $440,000 lower than the next-lowest bidder, P&J Contracting Co., run by Pless B. Jones Sr.
But Cherry Hill didn't come close to the contracting goals of 30 percent minority participation and 7 percent participation by women-owned businesses. The Maryland Minority Contractors Association and P&J Contracting objected, saying the contract should go to Jones, whose company did meet the goals in its bid.
"We don't believe that the apparent low bidder put forth the required effort" to seek minority firms, Robert Dashiell, attorney for P&J, told the board yesterday.
Lisa Harris Jones, attorney for the minority contractors' group, said that an "old-boy network" still apparently exists in awarding contracts. She suggested that Cherry Hill Construction had inside information about the price of the contract.
"I was told that there is a strong likelihood that these guys over here knew exactly what the budget was for this project," Harris Jones said. "Certain people are getting information that we don't get."
Cherry Hill Construction's attorney, Douglas G. Worrall, denied the allegation, noting that the city had told all companies that it believed the job should cost between $1 million and $1.5 million, and that the company simply bid in that range.
Then, in an unusual attempt to broker an agreement during the meeting, Pratt and Dixon suggested that the company see if it could hire Pless Jones' company as a subcontractor to increase its minority participation.
Jones is a politically connected contractor with a long history of contributions to many campaigns. The board voted to take a recess moments after Worrall introduced Jones to a Cherry Hill Construction official, saying with a laugh, "Here, meet your newest best friend."
But Jones and Cherry Hill Construction couldn't come to an agreement in the next few hours, and the Board of Estimates reconvened and awarded the contract, with O'Malley's admonition on the record.
"I was really hoping that Cherry Hill might have been able to come up with some more diversity even on an emergency basis," O'Malley said in an interview after the meeting. "[But] emergencies do happen and I've got to get that street opened up."
Harris Jones and Arnold M. Jolivet, president of the Maryland-Washington Minority Contractors Association, argued yesterday that the city was sending the wrong message by not backing the minority participation goals, which O'Malley and Dixon have championed after working to revive the contracting law last year.
"I applaud the [City Council] president. I applaud the mayor for bringing the program back," Jolivet told the board. "But we've got to enforce it."
But O'Malley said that in typical emergency contracts, a minority participation waiver would have been granted at the outset, and the issue would have been moot.