When D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray's aides count votes ahead of D.C. Council debates about major city contracts, they can skip one office. At-large Councilman David Grosso isn't going to vote for or against any contract. He'll vote only "present."
"I don't think the council should be in the business of approving contracts," Grosso said. "We have our bite at the apple when we do oversight and the budget process."
Grosso, who joined the council in January, voted "present" on a $542 million contract last week, and will cast the same vote Tuesday when lawmakers take up additional contracts worth $26 million.
"I'm not saying that the contract and procurement office is doing a great job. In fact, they're not," said Grosso. "But I don't have the expertise, staff or knowledge to be able to weigh in on these big decisions in a way that I feel comfortable enough to do it."
He added: "You should always question, in my mind, the motivation of anybody to do anything up here."
Grosso's penchant for "present" hasn't yet torpedoed a contract, but other lawmakers privately fear that his stand could someday leave D.C. without a deal in place if there's a close vote.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who has resisted efforts to strip lawmakers of their power to consider contracts, said members of the council have an obligation to vote on matters before them.
"Members are elected to vote, even if it's on a matter that a person feels we shouldn't vote on," Mendelson said. "As long as we have that responsibility, the responsibility requires that we vote yes or no."
But Grosso is not alone in his worries about the council's role in the contracting process.
Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans has pressed to strip lawmakers of their authority to take up contracts, a proposal that has gone nowhere.
"If people are truly concerned about a pay-to-play atmosphere, rather that limiting contributions to campaigns, get rid of the source of the problem, which is contracts," Evans said last year.
Mendelson counters, though, that the review process fosters government transparency and allows lawmakers to resolve problems before the District commits millions of dollars.
"The citizens are in a better position when the discussion and answers to questions about contracts are identified before contracts go into place," Mendelson said. "You don't get that if the council doesn't have contract approval."
For his part, Grosso said his "present" protest would continue.
"It's pretty unlikely that I would change my position on this at this point," he said. "I just can't picture a time when I'm going to feel comfortable enough."