In The News › Guest commentary: N.O. contract reform has long history

Mar 4, 2014

Source: The Advocate

Filed under: City Government, Contracting, Orleans Parish

Guest commentary: N.O. contract reform has long history

By David Marcello

The Advocate

March 4, 2014

Good news about city contracting reform in New Orleans is particularly welcome now, in the wake of Nagin trial testimony about criminal abuses in awarding professional services contracts.

But reform in professional services contracting is more than one story (“City contract process improved”). Instead, it’s a history with multiple chapters written over two decades by many authors. And the final chapter has not yet been written.

Voter-approved charter revisions under Mayor Marc Morial in 1994-95 required competitive selection of professional services contracts, a “first” in the 42-year history of New Orleans’ Home Rule Charter. Charter changes also authorized an Ethics Review Board and Office of Inspector General, but those reforms took longer than a decade getting implemented.

That happened when Councilwoman Shelly Midura got elected on a post-Hurricane Katrina governmental reform platform in 2006. She passed an ordinance that launched first ERB meetings in 2007 and produced New Orleans’ first inspector general five months later.

In 2008, state Sen. J.P. Morrell sponsored legislation that gave needed muscle to reform by authorizing subpoena power for the OIG. Later that year, voters approved Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson’s charter proposition that assured annual funding for the OIG. Those reforms empowered an independent “watchdog” OIG that Janet Howard at the Bureau of Governmental Research credits as the “linchpin” of contracting reform.

A recent Advocate’s article noted selection committees that meet in public. Thank Rep. Neil Abramson, who passed legislation in 2011 that compelled public meetings and ended executive sessions where council personnel evaluated professional services contractors behind closed doors.

Let’s also thank the civic sector for all these contracting reforms, which might never have been approved without vital support from civic groups, policy development organizations, and the media.

Progress in reforming professional services contracting didn’t arrive in a single stroke. It arrived incrementally in 1994-95, in 2007 and 2008, again in 2011, when we “stepped-up” to new plateaus of reform.

The Advocate article mentioned that “a successor could undo the reforms with a simple rewrite,” but that’s not true of competitive selection, scrutiny by the OIG, or public meetings of evaluation committees. Those reforms will survive mayoral transitions because they’re embedded in ordinances, charter changes and state statutes that can’t be changed with the stroke of a pen, like executive orders.

The Nagin trial showed how easily a mayor can change executive orders. Change by executive order is “transitory” change. Systemic reforms must be embedded in the law.

Voters will have an opportunity to “step up” with another needed reform by uniting separate mayor and council procurement policies in a single citywide process covering all professional services contracts. That’s important because procurement policies approved by both branches of government can’t be changed thereafter without joint mayor-council approval.

The League of Women Voters asked mayor/council candidates in this year’s elections, “Will you support a City Charter proposition that allows citizens to vote on unifying the processes for awarding professional services contracts establishing a single procedure that applies city-wide to all legislative and executive branch agencies, boards, and commissions?”

A majority of council members who take office in May have already pledged to support this charter reform, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu has promised a charter amendment soon. See candidates’ answers here:

What professional services safeguards should go into that amendment? Here’s a good start: Assure OIG scrutiny of procurements from start to finish; hold evaluation meetings in public; make evaluation forms public; require weighted evaluation criteria; provide independence in selecting the chief procurement officer; and put independent technical experts on evaluation committees.

Some may dismiss the need for safeguards by saying, “Ultimately, voters have to trust whomever they hand the reins to.” True enough, but that doesn’t render anti-corruption systems worthless.

Ultimately, we need both. We need trust, but trust backed by systemic reforms that enable us to verify public officials are trustworthy. For example, we need the OIG, whether or not we trust the administration in City Hall at any given moment.

Landrieu’s chief administrative officer, Andy Kopplin says “the existing process is almost airtight.” Clearly, he trusts the honesty of people running this administration. I share his trust in the personnel, but I also hunger for durable policies and procedures that will yield trustworthy outcomes, regardless of who’s running the show.

David Marcello is executive director of The Public Law Center at Tulane University Law School.

Mar 4, 2014

Source: The Advocate

Filed under: City Government, Contracting, Orleans Parish

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