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Thursday, January 29, 2009

David Campos' New Rule: If City Agencies Screw Up a Contract, Don't Approve It

Posted By on Thu, Jan 29, 2009 at 8:30 AM

click to enlarge rsz_campos.jpg
This week the Board of Supervisors approved two contracts that had been botched by the city, and only one man bothered to object. The only thing unusual about this is that one man bothered to object.

That was Supervisor David Campos, who, in one 20-minute stretch, took the mantle of "good government" farther than any other progressive has dared go.

"Even if there is no legal conflict, we should do a better job," Campos said at the most recent Supes' meeting. "At some point we in the Board of Supervisors have to draw the line and tell city agencies, you do have to follow best practices."

These contracts were openly acknowledged by the Supes to be as far from "best practice" as you can be without drugs.

One contract was to pay AECOM Water $26 million for construction management, without a competitive bidding process. It passed, with only Campos voting no, even though AECOM Water was part of a partnership that helped the city determine what its construction needs would be in the first place. That's a conflict of interest so big it needs therapy.

Another contract required retroactive authorization -- for no good reason. Stratus Technologies has been performing work for the city since October. The only trouble is, the Supes were supposed to approve the contract for that work -- and nobody asked them to. The Department of Technology extended Stratus' previous contract without consulting the Supes ... and now, since that came to light, the Supes are being asked to, you know, approve everything so that it's nice and legal.

That one passed unanimously, with even Campos admitting that failing to pass it would lead to a bigger mess by opening up the city to lawsuits.

Anecdotally, these kinds of screwups happen all the time: Officially, however, no one's keeping track. A spokesman for the City Attorney's office says that while the City Attorney is occasionally consulted on specific legal questions and matters pertaining to form, each city contracting agency has its own legal counsel who are responsible (or not) for catching conflicts of interest or ethical problems: Airport contracts go through the airport lawyers, PUC contracts go through the PUC lawyers, and so on down to Gavin Newsom's haircuts, which are approved by a hospital board.

The fact that there's no larger oversight, or even record-keeping, likely means this kind of things happens even more than we know. And these are the kinds of problems, Campos told his colleagues, which ought to send the whole process back to the drawing board: The city should have higher standards, not just for ethics but for competence.

The idea was met with a surprising amount of hostility and outright derision, even from Supes officially in favor of "good government."

Sean Elsbernd hilariously said that the Supes could legitimately approve the AECOM contract because "The department has learned its lesson," and that to invite the extra cost and delays of doing the contracts over again would be "thumbing our nose" at city ratepayers.

Ross Mirkarimi said he appreciated Campos' position -- in principle -- but agreed that incurring extra time and expense for these projects wasn't worth it. "We need a systemic solution, not a piecemeal one," he said -- without offering any suggestion of what a systemic solution might look like. Perhaps a law requiring city staff not to break the law? Would that do it?

Even Bevan Dufty, who has gone out of his way to position himself as a pragmatic challenger of the city's chronic ineptitude, was silent.

And, to be fair, it is relevant to point out that starting a contracting process from scratch is expensive and time-consuming -- but it's ridiculous to suggest that a department "learns its lesson" when you approve its activities (no matter how much you yell) or that a "systemic" approach can't start with a commitment not to accept work below a certain standard. In a city where the best intentions of democratically elected officials are routinely ignored, refusing to authorize taxpayer dollars to subsidize shoddy government work is the only way to let the bureaucracy know we're serious.

Except that, apparently, we're not serious about dealing with the unethical, incompetent, behavior that routinely comes out of city agencies. It's a pity: I heard that ethical government was once considered a "progressive" value.

To Campos, it still is -- to the point where he's willing to put his vote on the line for it.

"Early in my career I was sent by the school district to figure out what had happened in some of their contract issues, and so I'm coming from the perspective of someone who has seen what happens when systems don't follow best practices," he said. "I think process is very important."

In the meantime, we have finally rebuked the dictum often attributed to Edmund Burke: "All it takes for evil to win is for good men to do nothing." In fact, evil can also win if good men vote for it in committee.

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Benjamin Wachs


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