News & Politics

DC Council’s Parking Meter Vote Reveals Ties Between City Contracts and Campaign Donors

No laws were broken, but the a debate over parking meters doesn’t help the Council’s lousy reputation.

Photograph by Flickr user Mr. T in DC.

The uncomfortable intimacy between campaign donations and the legslative process has been on full display in the DC Council this week, with Council member Vincent Orange waging a last-ditch effort to derail a parking meter contract opposed by a company that happens to have also given $20,000 to his nascent mayoral campaign.

The Council gave its final approval to the contract today, awarding management of DC’s parking meters to Xerox, though not until a pitch from Orange that the contract should have gone to Rockville-based WorldWide Parking. The vote followed a committee hearing yesterday in which WorldWide Parking’s executives pleaded with Council members to reject Xerox’s $33 million bid, which was approved by the District Department of Transportation back in July 2012 and upheld this year by the city’s Contract Appeals Board.

But because the Council is tasked with approving all city government contracts, matters as inane as parking-meter management can become windows into the always squishy realm of campaign finance. Besides its donations to Orange, WorldWide Parking gave $18,000 to Council member Jack Evans’s mayoral campaign and $5,000 to Council member Muriel Bowser’s bid, though neither Evans or Bowser voted to hold up Xerox’s contract today.

In protesting the contract, Orange said he was trying to save the District money, not doing a donor’s bidding. “That’s the collateral issue the media wants to get you caught up in, because that’s sexy,” he said. “I cannot be bought for contributions. And anyone who thinks otherwise, you’re on another planet.”

Even though Orange was playing by the rules, it still gave some of his colleagues unease, particularly David Grosso, who spent nearly the entirety of his first year on the Council making it a personal rule not to vote on contracts. But Orange’s insistence on nixing a contract that has been in the works for 18 months pushed Grosso to break his habit.

“In this situation I had to say something,” Grosso tells Washingtonian. “In this particular incidence I don’t think I would have been able to live with myself had this contract been disapproved. This is exactly the thing that undermines our appearance.”

But Orange has gotten himself in troubling situations before where his campaign donors are concerned. Last December, he impeded the health inspection of Sam Wang Produce, a Northeast DC grocery store that was cited for rodent infestations and other violations. Campaign finance records revealed that the store, its employees, and associated businesses had given $19,000 to Orange’s campaigns over the years.

The parking-meter contract passed with an 11-2 vote, with only Marion Barry joining Orange’s opposition. “You think that Marion Barry is going to sell his soul for a meager contracting contribution?” the mayor-for-life said during an ensuing discussion about the contracting process. “Hell, no.”

Barry was censured by his colleagues in September after his admission that he accepted cash gifts from two contractors whose business with the city he had voted on.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.