Council Chairman Phil Mendelson
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

A new, $309 million contract calling for the upgrade of 75,000 local street lights easily passed the D.C. Council Tuesday, over the vocal objections of one notable critic: Phil Mendelson.

The Council chairman has spent the better part of the last week raising doubts about the deal, a unique public-private partnership that would hand over the responsibility for financing, installing, and maintaining these new street lights to a team of companies known as Plenary Infrastructure D.C. Mendelson called the deal and the process of passing it “embarrassing” and full of “tricks” during Tuesday’s meeting—he was even more direct in an interview with DCist, dubbing it “bullshit.”

The chairman says his opposition is a principled one, arguing that the District could save tens of millions of dollars by issuing its own bonds and financing the project itself. But Loose Lips hears that the talk of the Wilson Building this week has focused on Mendelson’s other motivations for opposing the contract.

The Plenary Infrastructure team won this hefty deal over M.C. Dean, the city’s longtime contractor on street light work. The company is politically influential in its own right, but it also happens to employ former councilmember David Catania as its lobbyist through his firm Georgetown Public Affairs, and it is hard to deny his connections to the chairman.

Consider, for instance, that Ben Young, Catania’s fellow managing director at the firm, also serves as campaign treasurer for Mendelson’s 2022 re-election bid. In retirement, Catania himself has become a reliable supporter of Mendelson’s campaigns over the years, contributing personally to the chairman in 2018 and again this year. Election watchers say he even helped raise money for Mendelson during his last re-election and is doing so again this year (Catania did not respond to a request for comment). 

Ultimately, it didn’t end up mattering much if Catania and M.C. Dean were indeed able to influence Mendelson on the deal, because other lawmakers weren’t convinced by their entreaties. The contract easily passed, with only Mendelson and Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray providing dissenting votes. But the whole matter certainly does show who the chairman might be listening to as he weighs such policy debates, a factor that was not lost on his colleagues Tuesday.

“You are just parroting numbers and information fed to you by the current contractor and their lobbyist,” Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, a leading supporter of the deal, said to Mendelson during the meeting. “All you’re doing is taking what they fed you, showing it to us and saying that’s that.”

In an interview just before the meeting, Mendelson conceded that he did meet with Cheh, Catania and M.C. Dean CEO Bill Dean about the street light deal, but said those discussions haven’t had any bearing on his thinking. If anything, he believes P3 proponents have been the ones behind some “intentionally generated confusion” on the issue.

“Instead of financing this ourselves, we’re requiring Plenary to finance it and that will cost us something like another $100 million,” Mendelson says. “If we did it ourselves, we would have to put money in our capital budget and that would actually be cheaper.”

Specifically, Dean argued in a Council roundtable on the bill that a traditional contract would save the city about $137 million. DDOT has claimed precisely the opposite, Cheh wrote in a memo to her colleagues on Jan. 26, alleging that a normal contract with a company like Dean’s would cost $431 million instead of this deal’s $309 million figure. She believes Dean’s estimate doesn’t include work on all 75,000 street lights covered under the P3 arrangement, nor would it include extra features that Plenary is promising, such as faster repairs of broken lights and proactive upgrades.

At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson says she initially shared Mendelson’s skepticism of the deal. But she dug in, did more research, and came away convinced that the P3 offers more perks for the city. She notes, for example, the wireless tech Plenary is promising would give the company a real-time picture of failing lights, instead of relying on the current system of citizen reports.

Henderson says she heard the same counteroffer from Dean, of course, but just didn’t find it as compelling as the chairman.

“You can have conversations with people, but you do have to evaluate the source of where you’re getting that information,” she says. “They’re not an uninterested or unvested party in the conversation.”

Mendelson, however, is a bit vested in what M.C. Dean and Catania think of him. Campaign finance records show that Catania’s clients have directly donated $9,850 to the chairman’s re-election campaign (as of Jan. 31). That number balloons to $23,830 if you count companies that belong to two prominent trade groups that Catania represents, the D.C. Association of Beverage Alcohol Wholesalers and the Associated Builders and Contractors of Metro Washington. The number may well be higher, too, but those groups don’t list their members publicly.

Mendelson has plenty of cash, independent of any association with someone like Catania. He’s raised more than $318,000 since launching his re-election bid even while foregoing public financing, largely courtesy of a who’s who of development executives and other business luminaries, and his willingness to listen to the private sector means he’ll probably never lack for campaign funding. After publication, Mendelson hastened to remind LL that he’s also accepted campaign contributions from Plenary’s lobbyist, Kerry Pearson, who looks to have chipped in a combined $4,500.

Perhaps what the numbers show most clearly is who Mendelson is rubbing elbows with at pricy fundraisers, and how that proximity to big business can shape his thinking.

“I will sleep well and wake up with a good conscience, no matter how this vote goes,” Mendelson said Tuesday. “I think you should be very restless,” Cheh countered.

This post has been updated with comment from Chairman Mendelson.