Deals show disparity

Board's response to subcontracting violation varies

April 06, 2006|By DOUG DONOVAN | DOUG DONOVAN,SUN REPORTER

Contract disputes at the city's spending board yesterday revealed an apparent double standard in how Baltimore enforces its minority subcontracting law - an issue that spurred a rift among the city's three top elected officials.

The five-member Board of Estimates, with three votes from Mayor Martin O'Malley and his appointees, awarded a lawn-mowing contract yesterday to a firm that has violated the city's minority subcontracting law twice.

The mayor's voting bloc then rejected an effort to reconsider a janitorial contract that the board stripped last week from a company for violations of the same law.

"This is a sad state of affairs," said Neal M. Janey, an attorney for the custodial company.

City Council President Sheila Dixon and Comptroller Joan M. Pratt agreed with Janey and voted against both moves.

"I think [the minority subcontracting law] should be applied consistently across the board," Pratt said.

O'Malley followed the advice of his top lawyer and board member, Ralph Tyler, who said the failed bidders on both contracts did not provide enough credible evidence to reverse awarding the work to other firms. But O'Malley said nothing to counter assertions that one of his top priorities - the minority subcontracting ordinance - was being unfairly enforced.

Problems with the contracts first arose last week when a custodial company owned by a black woman did not win a new deal with the city.

Joan Addison's Merit Building Contracting Services of Baltimore holds the current contract, which expires April 30. The board had decided in recent months not to extend the deal for an additional year because Addison had not hired enough minority and female subcontractors.

Instead, the city approved a temporary extension until the expired contract could be rebid. Last week, after hearing evidence of Merit's failure to follow minority inclusion rules, the board unanimously awarded the $791,000 contract to another firm despite Janey's request for a compromise.

"The consequences to her are just devastating," said Janey, who sat on the board while serving as city solicitor during the Schmoke administration.

Immediately after the janitorial decision, city purchasing officials recommended that the board award a grass cutting contract to a company that had the same violations as Merit. The board deferred the grass cutting contract until yesterday to explore the issue.

But during yesterday's meeting Dixon and Pratt wanted the board to reconsider its decision on the janitorial contract based on the lawn mowing dispute. O'Malley's board majority - which includes Tyler and Public Works Director George Winfield - rejected the move.

Tyler said that the board under O'Malley has rarely, if ever, voided previously awarded contracts and that it was a bad precedent to set.

Dixon and Pratt also voted against the final award on the $700,000 grass cutting contract, siding with the losing landscaper, Andrew West of Guardian Landscaping of Baltimore.

West stumped the board last week when he revealed that one of the two recommended winning grass cutters, Lorenz Inc. of Baltimore, has twice failed to meet minority subcontracting goals. West also revealed that city purchasing officials had given the other winner, TruGreen Landcare, a national firm with local offices, a document that he said gave it an advantage.

The document, which TruGreen included in its bid, stated that shrub trimming was not part of the contract - an assertion that appears to contradict the contract's language.

West said his bid would not have been $1 million higher if he had subtracted shrub trimming. He also said he would have bid lower if he had assumed that he could ignore the minority subcontracting goals without consequences.

"A precedent has been set - you do what you like; if you get away with it, you get away with it," West said.

He said he will file a lawsuit against the city for violating competitive bidding rules.

A minority subcontractor for TruGreen, Dominic Peters, said he was upset that Lorenz won the work because of its track record with minority firms. Peters also said he was upset that the city lowered the minority goals for the landscaping work over last year's contract.

"How does that help minorities?" he asked.

A lawyer for TruGreen, Lydia B. Hoover, said the exclusive document that her client included in its bid did not provide an advantage because it did not change the contract's scope. Tyler agreed.

Under questioning from Pratt, however, purchasing agent William B. Irish conceded that his agency should not have given the document to TruGreen. But Irish supported Tyler and Hoover by saying it did not alter the contract. Irish then defined a shrub as a "weed" and said the contract did not require trimming of shrubs but only the pulling of weeds.

The contract's language, however, distinguishes between trimming shrubs and pulling weeds.

"It completely undermines the competitive bidding process," West said.

The board majority disagreed.

doug.donovan@baltsun.com

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