In The News › Jefferson Parish council got $356,000 in contributions from vendors, watchdog says

Jan 30, 2013

Source: The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Contracting, Ethics, Governance, Jefferson Parish

Jefferson Parish council got $356,000 in contributions from vendors, watchdog says

By Manuel Torres, | The Times-Picayune.
January 30, 2013

Jefferson Parish Council members received more than $356,000 in campaign contributions since 2009 from contractors that sought work at Wednesday’s council meeting, a civic watchdog group said, as it pressured officials to enact contracting reforms. Citizens for Good Government read the tally for each council member at the meeting, urging them to adopt changes that would curb the discretion officials enjoy to award professional contracts.

The council responded with assurances that some contracting changes are coming soon, and it filed the summary of an ordinance to change “purchasing requirements, and other related matters.” That’s the first legal step for council members to hold public hearings and vote on specific proposals as soon as next month.

“We are anxiously waiting for and expecting some reforms,” said Margie Seeman, vice-chair of Citizens for Good Government.

What the upcoming proposals will look like, however, remained unclear Wednesday. Both council and administration officials indicated the council is working on a draft of the proposed ordinance. Council Chairman Chris Roberts, who is expected to sponsor the proposals, didn’t return messages seeking comment Wednesday.

But Parish President John Young said the parish attorney’s office has sent to council members a proposal that would make price a mandatory part of the criteria for ranking offers for some professional contracts. The council in 2010 voted to remove price as a factor in evaluating responses to so-called Request for Proposals. The parish uses RFPs to hire professional services for specific tasks or projects. Young has been pushing in recent months to restore price in the equation.

Parish Attorney Deborah Foshee said her office drafted “multiple, alternative changes” to include price as a criteria and to codify the formula by which it would be included. She said the administration also proposed “purely housekeeping changes” to address the composition of evaluation committees, among other contracting matters.

Young said he is “strongly recommending” that the council adopts the sections of the proposal regarding price, but he also urged council members to consider the rest of the administration ideas.

Roberts has said he’s working on a plan to mandate that the council awards contracts only to firms that finish near the top in parish evaluations. Currently, council members are free to choose any firm, regardless of its score in technical evaluations. Roberts has said he wants to restrict the council’s choice, by law, to only the top three or top five companies, depending on the number of firms ranked.

Councilman Paul Johnston, however, reiterated Wednesday that his preference is to award contracts to the No. 1 ranked company, unless the top three firms are set apart by only a handful of points in their evaluation scores.

“I’m not going to pick a company that’s 15 points apart from the top,” Johnston said.

Johnston said he has no plans to present a rival ordinance to the one Roberts is drafting. But Seeman and other proponents of reform said they’d like to see the council adopt Johnston’s idea instead. The Bureau of Governmental Research, which recommended contracting reforms in Jefferson last year, has also urged the council to mandate the selection of the best-ranked company in professional contracts.

“That’s the best option,” Seeman said.

Her group’s reading of the campaign contributions total for council members from vendors has become part of the initial routine at council meetings. Seeman on Wednesday said Roberts took the highest amount in political donations from vendors with items pending on that meeting’s agenda, receiving a total $87,500. Councilman Elton Lagasse, who like Roberts serves in a parishwide seat, had the second highest total, $65,750.

The rest of the council and their four-year total in campaign contributions from vendors seeking contracts Wednesday are:

- Ricky Templet: $41,000 – Paul Johnston: $37,886 – Mark Spears: $49,591 – Ben Zahn: $44,829 – Cynthia Lee-Sheng: $29,750

Council members didn’t comment on the contributions during Wednesday’s meeting. Roberts and Lagasse have previously pointed out that they ran for district seats before they ran for their current parishwide seats, which explain why they have the most contributions. Council members have also said that contributions have nothing to do with contracts they approve for parish contractors.

The council has also noted that they approved affidavits in which parish vendors must disclose campaign contributions, as part of reforms in recent years that have put Jefferson ahead of most other local governments in our region when it comes to transparency in public contracting.

But Citizens for Good Government has urged the council to adopt reforms recommended by the Bureau of Governmental Research, which has criticized the discretion council members have to approve contracts, particularly for professional services.

Until the council adopts the type of far-reaching contracting reforms BGR recommended, Seeman said, they will continue reading the tally of contributions at every council meeting.
“We’ll be here every time,” she said.

Jan 30, 2013

Source: The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Contracting, Ethics, Governance, Jefferson Parish

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