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Forum about Jefferson Parish’s contracting to go on without council members

By Manuel Torres
Nola.com

Considering the intense public attention to contracting in Jefferson Parish, the Bureau of Governmental Research earlier this year expected no difficulties finding Parish Council members willing to participate in a forum on the topic. But none of the seven council members would agree to represent their views at the Nov. 27 event, said BGR President Janet Howard.

Instead, the only official who accepted BGR’s invitation, Parish President John Young, will discuss the issue with Mike Purdy, a former contracting official in Washington state who is an expert on the issue.

The event, part of BGR’s Breakfast Briefing series, is scheduled to begin Nov. 27 at 8 a.m. at the Marriott Metairie at Lakeway, 3838 North Causeway Blvd. The breakfast is free, but those planning to attend are asked to reserve a seat by contacting BGR at 504.525.4152, ext. 108.

BGR has been pushing for reducing the discretion enjoyed by Jefferson Parish Council members to award so-called professional service contracts. Howard said that would help avoid pitfalls like the cost overruns in the construction of the Jefferson Performing Arts Center.

The bureau first invited Jefferson Parish Council Chairman Elton Lagasse and Councilman at-Large Chris Roberts, the two council members elected parishwide. Neither accepted the invitation.

Lagasse didn’t answer an email message seeking comment for this story.

Young and Roberts have sparred over contracting and other parish issues in recent months. So a debate between them could have been a lively affair. But when asked why he declined to attend the forum with Young, Roberts said: “The actions that go on in public have to match the actions in private. . . He’s probably one of the most prolific fundraisers the parish has.” Roberts added: “I’ve never sent a check back to a donor saying it was not enough.”

Young, addressing Roberts’ comments, said: “My public and private actions are always conducted in accordance with the strictest ethical and legal standards and are geared toward avoiding even the appearance of impropriety.”

With the two parishwide council members declining the invitation, Howard sent an email message to all five district representatives on Sept. 12. But none agreed to participate.

Explaining his decision to decline the invitation, Councilman Ben Zahn said in a statement that BGR’s calls for contracting reform in Jefferson “may be premature at this point. While the issue of contracting practices is important, I would like to allow the future inspector general time to review, implement, and make recommendations to the full council as to what changes, if any, should be made in the process.”

Councilman Paul Johnston at first said he had not been invited to the BGR event. After a reporter Monday alluded to the Sept. 12 email letter, Johnston said his office computers had technical difficulties around that time, causing him and his staff to miss the email when it was first sent. He said they located it later Monday and that he would consider rescheduling some Nov. 27 appointments to try to attend the BGR breakfast.

Councilwoman Cynthia Lee Sheng said in an email that she received the BGR invitation, “but it seemed like they wanted us to debate — not something I was interested in.” Councilman Mark Spears said his infant twins are scheduled for a doctor’s appointment the morning of the event.

“Nobody is hiding from our beliefs in this issue,” Spears said.

Councilman Ricky Templet didn’t respond to an e-mail message seeking comment.

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