In The News › Jefferson Parish Council majority backing contracting changes

Dec 19, 2012

Source: The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Contracting, Governance, Jefferson Parish

Jefferson Parish Council majority backing contracting changes

By Manuel Torres
The Times-Picayune

A Jefferson Parish Council majority is endorsing a plan to limit the council’s ability to hire professionals without having to consider the firms’ ranking in parish evaluations. And at least two council members said the council ought to limit its choices to no more than the top three firms.

The possible change is part of several proposals Councilman Chris Roberts is drafting that would also impose new disclosure rules on members of the technical evaluation committees.

Under current law, the council is not required to consider scores from technical evaluations when hiring architects, engineers and other professionals. Roberts, who is expected to bring up his proposals early next year, wants to mandate that the council select professionals only from firms ranked among the top five or top three, depending on how many vendors qualified for a specific contract. The council would be free to select from among the top five companies, Roberts said, unless five vendors or fewer were ranked. In that case, the contract would have to go to any of the top three firms, he said.

Council members Elton Lagasse, Paul Johnston, Ben Zahn and Cynthia Lee-Sheng said they support Roberts’ proposals. Zahn made it clear, however, that he preferred limiting the council’s choices to the top three firms, even when more than five companies qualify for a contract.

“I’m more inclined to support (Roberts’) thought of limiting the selection to the top three companies. However, I could live with five if necessary,” Zahn said. “Either improves vastly over the current process.”

Johnston is going even further. He said the council should consider mandating that contracts go only to the No. 1-ranked company in parish evaluations. The only exception, Johnston said, would be when the three highest-scoring firms are separated by only a handful of points. When the competition is that close, Johnston argued, the council should retain the ability to give preference to local companies or to firms that have a good track record working for the parish.

“I have no problem selecting the No. 1 firm, unless several are only three or four points apart,” Johnston said.

Councilmen Ricky Templet and Mark Spears didn’t reply to a message this week seeking their position on the proposals.

The discussion over restricting the council’s discretion comes as council members have faced increased calls in recent months to reform the parish’s contracting system. Unlike contracts for construction or supplies, which must go to the lowest bidder, state and parish law give council members broad power to select professionals. In addition, district representatives have traditionally deferred to one another in selecting firms for projects in their respective districts. That has at times placed monumental decisions in the hands of a single politician.

In perhaps the most infamous example in recent parish history, former Councilman John Lavarine alone determined the selection of designers for the Jefferson Performing Arts Center. Design problems contributed to years of delays and have helped double the cost of the building to almost $50 million. Lavarine later told state auditors that he selected architect Marcel Wisznia because his firm was the only one that came to him personally and asked for the job.

In part citing the botched art center project, the Bureau of Governmental Research has proposed sweeping changes to how the parish hires professionals. Among the proposed reforms, the watchdog organization said the council should be required to select the top-ranked company in the technical evaluation of a project — as Johnston is suggesting now.

Council members, including Roberts, have argued for allowing the council to retain some discretion. They have said that allows the council to favor local employers over out-of-area companies with similar expertise, for example.

Separately, Lagasse, Johnston, Zahn and Lee-Sheng said they are also backing Roberts’ proposal to require members of parish evaluation committees to disclose potential conflicts of interest. Some of the committees include private professionals who represent trade organizations, and sometimes they are in the position to evaluate competitors, Roberts has said.

He also said members of some professional organizations have at times automatically excluded or assigned lower scores to vendors who didn’t belong to the same trade group — even though those vendors may be just as qualified.

“We can’t have people who may be conflicted in these ways evaluating companies,” Roberts said last week.

Zahn said setting disclosure requirements is simply a “must” in any transparent government agency. He also said adopting these changes “sends a strong message to the future Inspector General as to what this council will expect. I totally support this action.”

Council members are not the only ones pondering contracting changes. Parish President John Young’s administration is working on a proposal to mandate that price be part of the criteria used to rank vendors. A majority of council members have said they’re willing to require that price be in the mix, but that price should not be the deciding factor for professional contracts. Young’s proposal, which would also need council approval, is also expected for debate early next year.

Dec 19, 2012

Source: The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Contracting, Governance, Jefferson Parish

Fair Use Notice

This site occasionally reprints copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We make such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of issues and to highlight the accomplishments of our affiliates. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is available without profit. For more information go to: US CODE: Title 17,107. Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.