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City keeps lid on its process for awarding contracts

City keeps lid on its process for awarding contracts
by Jaime Guillet

New Orleans City Council members and government watchdogs continue to search for greater transparency in professional services contracts in spite of Mayor C. Ray Nagin’s most recent and comprehensive executive order on the process issued in April.

When the city took over storm-related demolition responsibilities from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in August, officials advertised for a demolitions project manager through the administration’s professional services contract procurement process. An eight-member Selection Review Panel evaluated the submissions, and Nagin subsequently awarded Beck Disaster Recovery Inc. of Orlando, Fla., the $11 million contract on Nov. 28.

What other proposals were submitted and the factors that went into the selection of BDR remain unknown because the city’s policy on professional services contracts is to keep all deliberations confidential.

“This process is about as transparent as mud in the Mississippi River,” said Janet Howard, president and CEO of the Bureau of Governmental Research, a New Orleans-based public policy research organization.

The problem with the city’s professional services contract procurement process, said Dave Westerling, supervisory forensic engineer for the city’s inspector general’s office, is the layers of privacy, which call into question if the method is truly competitive.

“The key is to have the process totally transparent. That way there is not a contract steered to one particular (company),” New Orleans Inspector General Robert Cerasoli said.

City Attorney Penya Moses-Fields said the panel’s meetings and deliberations are private so members can “freely discuss what they believe are the pros and cons about businesses and the needs.” The final evaluation form, released after the contract is awarded, is public record.

“It’s not confidential. I think that’s one of the miscommunications that’s going on,” Moses-Fields said. “As far as the deliberations, each one of those persons who serves on that panel has their own individual opinions and comments … and that is what is considered confidential. From that, it then becomes the consensus of the entire Selection Review Panel and all of that is public. Each person who sits on that panel has to sign off and basically say as a whole, ‘This is our recommendation and evaluation going forward.’”

City Chief Administrative Officer Brenda Hatfield said any citizen or vendor who wants to review an official evaluation form can submit a public records request through the city attorney’s office or go directly to her office for a copy.

“I have copies in my office. The law department has one in their office as well,” Hatfield said. “We’ve had vendors question where they fell in the evaluation and they’re invited to come to my office and take a look at it.”

But panel evaluation forms only include scores on aspects such as cost and provide no specific detail on the individual submissions.

Nagin’s latest executive order concerning professional services contracts, dated April 4, changed several aspects from his June 2005 amendments to city procedures, such as opening the process to include the Office of Recovery and Development Administration.

A notable inclusion in the April order is an invitation to the inspector general’s office to attend Selection Review Panel meetings to certify the administration’s procedures are being followed. The order requires 24-hour notification be provided for the independent monitor, which Westerling said is “not a great place to be,” insisting the IG’s office needs earlier notice of meetings.

The executive branch’s professional services contract process has been a point of contention for government watchdogs for more than a decade. BGR has made unsuccessful attempts to revise it, including a proposed charter change during the Marc Morial administration and again when Nagin was elected in 2002.

One of Howard’s major concerns relates to the city’s use of community panel representatives for contracts worth $150,000 and more. According to Nagin’s April order and Hatfield, organizations such as the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce, the Urban League of Greater New Orleans and local universities nominate community representatives and the mayor’s office chooses a panel from those nominees.

Hatfield said a community representative “very rarely” serves on the review panel twice.

“When we are seeking an individual to serve as a CPR, we seek someone who has some background or experience in the industry we are seeking,” Hatfield said.

“It’s based on the nomination and recommendation of those organizations,” Moses-Fields said. “All we do is send letters to those organizations and they refer over who they are recommending to participate. That person still has to abide by all our ethics laws, our conflict of interest laws. They’re treated as a city employee for the purpose of service so they can’t have an interest in that particular RFP or contract or have any business relations with anyone who participated for that particular RFP.”

Howard said problems under this system do not necessarily arise from the representative having a conflict, but from the opportunity for business groups to reciprocate, as in, “I’ll help you get this contract if you help me get this contract,” she said.

“The concept of community representatives as contained in the executive order is a total perversion of what BGR put forth in 2002 to create professional selection committees,” Howard said. “It is so inadequate for conflict of interest concerns.”

Westerling agrees, saying the use of community representatives is unusual and “a member could exert control over another.”

City Council President Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson said transparency concerns are “not new” in New Orleans and she questions why in a “technology society” the administration does not publish contracts online.

In September 2005, the council passed a resolution requiring the administration to provide financial disclosure from anyone contracting with the city for recovery projects. But the resolution, which doesn’t have the force of law, has not been invoked.

Without providing details, Council Vice President Arnie Fielkow, who has championed greater transparency in contracts, said he “hopes to move forward with a legislative instrument” related to professional service procurement for the council’s July 7 Governmental Affairs Committee meeting.•

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