In The News › Curb pay to play in Jefferson Parish’s contracting: An editorial

May 14, 2012

Source: The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Contracting, Ethics, Governance, Jefferson Parish

Curb pay to play in Jefferson Parish’s contracting: An editorial

May 14, 2012
The Times-Picayune

Awarding so-called professional service contracts has long been one of the sweetest political plums for Jefferson Parish Council members. They enjoy almost unfettered discretion to hand out millions of dollars in public work to contractors, many of whom donate generously to the politicians’ campaigns.

That has given the parish a reputation for pay-to-play contracting, which hurts taxpayers and erodes confidence in local government. After the Broussard administration scandals and the subsequent federal corruption probe, the Parish Council has made contracting changes. But as the Bureau of Governmental Research outlined in a report last week, council members still enjoy too much discretion to reward political insiders.

Adopting most of the recommendations in the BGR’s report would go a long way toward correcting that problem, improving the transparency and accountability of parish contracting and reducing waste.

The BGR report appropriately credited parish officials with taking some positive steps recently, including measures approved last week that have yet to take effect. They include establishing a set of criteria for evaluating architects and engineers and a minimum score for contractors in order to be deemed qualified. Contractors also must disclose political contributions to parish officials and their subcontractors, and the evaluating committees must meet in public.

But these and other changes have failed to correct the fundamental flaw in the parish’s professional contracting: the enormous discretion council members enjoy.

In public bids, the contract must be given to the lowest responsible bidder. But when hiring professionals, like engineers and attorneys, the council can select anybody regardless of price or the rankings by evaluating committees. That problem is aggravated by the council’s practice of deferring to the preference of the council member in whose district the work will take place.

That’s how parish taxpayers ended up with the Jefferson Performing Arts Center mess, which is already $18 million over budget. The project’s architect, Wisznia & Associates, was the fourth-ranked firm for the job. But former Councilman John Lavarine, whose district included the center’s site, later said he recommended Wisznia because it was the only company that asked him directly for the job.


Council members have denied that political contributions are a factor in their contracting decisions. But last year alone, firms qualified to provide professional services donated $580,000, or 43 percent of council members’ campaign funds, according to the BGR report. And several cases in recent years, from contracting for auditors to bus benches, have shown that qualified firms that had not contributed to the council members’ campaigns were shunned, even though they offered the best deals for taxpayers.

To address this problem, BGR recommended a requirement that professional contracts be awarded to the firm with the highest evaluation from the parish’s technical committees. That would essentially remove most of the discretion from elected officials, a prospect that raises questions about accountability to the public. But the parish should at least require that officials pick a firm from a subset of the top-ranked companies — the top three, for example.

The parish also should include cost as part of its evaluation process, and cost should also be an important factor in selecting the firms. As of now, price is not required to be a factor at all, meaning taxpayers are often paying more than they should for services. Indeed, almost every professional contract that local governments have recently opened for competition has led to savings.

BGR is also suggesting that Jefferson officials narrow their definition of what’s a professional service and that they be required to explain why each contract handled in this manner should not be open for bidding. Until Parish President John Young put the grass-cutting contract up for bids in recent years, the parish awarded it as a professional service. That was ridiculous, and the firm that had the contract cut its own price by about $1.5 million annually when bids were sought. The now-defunct, $160 million garbage contract with River Birch Landfill also was awarded as a professional contract. The parish later argued in court, correctly, that the deal should have been handled through bids.

Some council members will surely offer excuses to keep their unfettered discretion in professional contracting. But experience has shown that competitive bidding and more transparent contracting will save millions of dollars. That’s why the parish should adopt these recommendations.

May 14, 2012

Source: The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Contracting, Ethics, Governance, Jefferson Parish

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