In The News › Editorial: Opening up government

Jun 6, 2010

Source: The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Contracting, Orleans Parish

Editorial: Opening up government

Sunday, June 06, 2010
The Times-Picayune

New Orleanians waited a long time for the sort of reforms to city contracting announced by Mayor Mitch Landrieu Thursday.

Marc Morial ran for office in 1994 pledging to clean up the city’s contracting practices, which were rife with patronage and insider dealing. He didn’t do it.

When Ray Nagin became mayor in 2002, he canceled some of the Morial administration’s patronage contracts and promised to bring openness to the selection of contractors. But he reneged on that promise. And his administration pulled some of the same stunts that he blasted his predecessor for eight years ago — extending contracts as the administration was about to leave office, allowing contractors to bill taxpayers for questionable expenses, shutting the public out of the process.

Mayor Landrieu not only is promising a new approach, he has actually committed it to policy. “We are going to institute a new way of doing business … to restore credibility and faith that the public should always have in the way government handles its money,” he said during a signing ceremony for the new rules.

The key provision involves a dramatic change in the selection process of vendors who provide professional services such as architectural, engineering and legal work — which is work that does not have to go to the low bidder. Traditionally, the mayor has had complete control over those decisions.

In the new process, committees of five high-ranking city employees will review all contract proposals worth $15,000 or more and forward a recommendation to Mayor Landrieu. He will have two options: sign a contract with the recommended company or explain in writing why he decided not to do so. He cannot sign a contract with another company.

The selection committees will be required to comply with open-meetings and public-records laws, and their written evaluations will be public. The mayor will appoint a chief procurement officer to coordinate contracts.

Companies bidding on city work must name the subcontractors they plan to use. The companies also will be required to disclose relationships they or subcontractors have with city officials or employees.

The new rules were crafted by a broad group of community leaders, including Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux; Charles Teamer, founder of Dryades Savings Bank, and Jay Lapeyre, past chairman of the Business Council. The inclusion of Mr. Quatrevaux is especially significant.

The Nagin administration essentially refused to cooperate with Mr. Quatrevaux’s office. Mayor Landrieu, though, says he sees the value in having a watchdog over city spending.

Mr. Quatrevaux gave his stamp of approval to the new contracting plan. And Janet Howard, executive director of the nonprofit Bureau of Governmental Research, described the new rules as “big, big steps forward.”

BGR has pushed for contracting reforms for years. “It’s not perfect or everything that we wanted,” Ms. Howard said. “On the other hand, we have a lot more transparency … “

The City Council also struck a blow for openness last week. The council approved an ordinance requiring their contractors to disclose the names of subcontractors. As with Mayor Landrieu’s rules, the law will cover contracts worth more than $15,000.

This sort of transparency and accountability will be a refreshing change for New Orleanians.

Mayor Nagin not only reneged on his pledge to change contracting practices, he resisted the council’s push to forbid the hiring of felonious contractors. Fortunately, the City Council voted to override his veto of that ordinance.

The state legislative auditor last week issued a report that found that two technology deals done by the Nagin administration apparently violated state and city laws.

That wasn’t all. Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera’s report looked at contracts with 20 vendors. His office found contracts that lacked required specifications in their requests for proposals or requests for qualifications, lacked proof of advertising and didn’t have records of review panel meetings. Many were missing key information such as contractual amounts and beginning and ending dates and had vague language that didn’t describe what the vendor was expected to deliver.

The review process being implemented by Mayor Landrieu should eliminate that sort of sloppiness. And letting the public see how decisions are made and judge the proposals for themselves should help rebuild confidence in City Hall.

The level of trust was low by the time Mayor Nagin left office, and it may take time for the public to regain confidence in city government.

But taking professional services contracts out of the back room is a good way to start.

Jun 6, 2010

Source: The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Contracting, Orleans Parish

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