Under pressure from lawmakers, Gov. William Donald Schaefer has decided to appoint an independent blue-ribbon commission to oversee the awarding of a controversial auto emissions testing contract.
The seven-member panel will oversee and advise the Department of Transportation, reviewing proposals and making recommendations on the award of the contract, said Page Boinest, a spokeswoman for Governor Schaefer.
The contract, which is expected to be worth $100 million, would upgrade, expand and set higher standards for Maryland's tailpipe monitoring program.
It has received considerable scrutiny from legislators and lobbyists in Annapolis in recent months.
Last month, Senate Majority Leader Clarence W. Blount and House Appropriations Chairman Howard P. Rawlings met with the governor and DOT officials over the contract, and the encounter led to charges of impropriety by both sides.
The two powerful black legislators claimed they wanted to give the incumbent contractor, Envirotest Systems Corp., a fair chance of winning, but transportation officials claimed the lawmakers threatened trouble for the department if it did not show greater favor toward Envirotest, which is chaired by a black former Carter administration official from Montgomery County.
"The governor recognizes that there has been a fair amount of discussion about the procurement process, and bringing in an independent group would remove questions from it," Ms. Boinest said.
Ms. Boinest said panel members have not yet been selected. She said only two of the seven are expected to represent the administration, with the remaining five coming from outside state government. The transportation department will advise the commission, she said.
The decision represents only the second time that the governor has opted to appoint a commission to review the procurement process, she said.
The last was two years ago when there was much controversy over the purchase of a computer system for the state lottery.
Meanwhile, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, sent a letter this week to four House leaders, including Mr. Rawlings, warning them not to get involved in the procurement process for the vehicle emissions inspection program.
"While I recognize the policy setting and oversight functions performed by any legislative committee, I feel that this procurement is not an issue that can be resolved by the committees of the Maryland General Assembly," Mr. Mitchell wrote in the letter dated Oct. 13.
"Therefore, I ask that your committee or subcommittee not hold any further meetings or briefings on the VEIP procurement and refrain from further involvement in the issue."
Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, had been asked to co-author a similar letter jointly with Mr. Mitchell that was to be sent to both Senate and House leaders, but declined.
Mr. Miller said yesterday he saw no reason for legislators not to continue to oversee the procurement process. A Department of Fiscal Services report on the subject is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee on Oct. 27.
"I have the utmost confidence in the committee chairman of the Senate," Mr. Miller said.
Mr. Rawlings said yesterday he was pleased by the governor's decision and intends to give the commission time to work. But, he said, if the commission fails to correct shortcomings in the way the contract has been written, he may choose to get involved again.
"This process isn't over with," Mr. Rawlings said. "It would be irresponsible for me to say the case is closed."