In The News › Jefferson Parish charter board completes report, declines again to endorse contracting changes

Jefferson Parish charter board completes report, declines again to endorse contracting changes

Manuel Torres, | The Times-Picayune

May 23, 2013

Jefferson Parish activists Thursday night urged a charter review committee to submit as charter amendments contracting proposals that have stalled at the Parish Council. But members of the Charter Advisory Board declined to add the proposals to their final report, saying a board majority rejected the contracting measures earlier this year.

In a final hearing that lasted 11 minutes, the board received only two public comments, both from members of the civic watchdog group Citizens for Good Government. Group members urged the board to reconsider its rejection of language that would reduce the council’s political discretion in awarding no-bid contracts.

Margie Seeman, the group’s vice chairwoman, reminded board members that the Parish Council has postponed voting on the contracting changes until September. She urged the board to endorse a recommendation from the Bureau of Governmental Research requiring the council to award no-bid contracts to the top-ranked firms in technical evaluations. Council members can now award those contracts to any qualified company, regardless of ranking, and many of the firms seeking parish work donate to council members’ political campaigns.

“It is inconceivable to us that the Charter Advisory Board or anyone else could think that the current method of awarding no-bid contracts in Jefferson Parish is acceptable,” Seeman said.
But board Chairman Louis Gruntz said the board did not intend to receive additional charter suggestions at Thursday’s hearing, only to gather public comment on their existing recommendations.
The board earlier this year voted 6-5 against recommending the contracting changes proposed by BGR.

The board’s 17-page report now goes to the council, which can accept, amend or reject each of the proposed charter changes. Any proposal the council endorses would go to voters, who have the final say on charter amendments.

Monday’s session ended the decennial review of the parish’s main law. A decade ago, the review led voters to change the structure of the Parish Council, adding a second parishwide seat and reducing district seats from six to five.

The charter changes proposed this time around are generally less sweeping, as board members rejected several proposals that could have altered the distribution of power among the parish’s branches of government. Indeed, Jefferson Parish President John Young was unsuccessful in efforts to get the board to endorse giving his office more power at the expense of the council.

That’s not to say the board’s proposals aren’t substantial. Prompted in part by corruption during former Parish President Aaron Broussard’s administration, the board has recommended a ban on any outside income for the parish president, other than gains from passive investments. Broussard is in prison in part for accepting bribes from a contractor that federal prosecutors said Broussard tried to mask as consulting fees.

The board also is recommending setting minimum qualifications for parish attorney’s office employees. That seeks to stop abuses like former parish attorney Tom Wilkinson hiring Broussard’s then-girlfriend, Karen Parker, as a paralegal even though she lacked proper qualifications. Wilkinson and Parker both admitted to federal crimes and received probation.

Other changes endorsed by the charter board include:

Allowing Inspector General David McClintock to save surplus money to pay for large audits or experts, instead of returning annual surpluses to the parish’s general fund. The surplus fund would be capped at one year’s worth of the inspector general’s operating revenue, or roughly $1.1 million.

Giving inspector general investigations preference and priority over any investigation of the same person or activity conducted by any other parish entity.

Changing the Planning Advisory Board into a Planning Board, but still leaving the final decisions to the Parish Council.

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