In The News › Jefferson Parish’s new law on disclosure of campaign solicitations faces criticism

Jefferson Parish’s new law on disclosure of campaign solicitations faces criticism

By Manuel Torres

A Jefferson Parish watchdog group is raising questions about a new requirement that some parish contractors disclose personal campaign solicitations from elected officials. The group on Wednesday asked the Parish Council to broaden the types of solicitations that must be reported. But several council members, including the author of the new rule, said no changes are needed.

Members of Citizen for Good Government, which has pushed for more transparency and fairness in parish contracting, also urged the council to limit professional engineering contracts that are awarded without competitive proposals.

Members of the group lauded the new solicitation disclosure law at a Parish Council meeting held in Kenner. The new requirement, approved unanimously by the council in September, mandates affidavits from companies seeking no-bid contracts listing the name of any parish official who asked them for a campaign contribution by phone or in person in the previous two years.

Margie Seemann, vice-chairman of Citizens for Good Government, said the measure is a welcome step. But she said the law doesn’t expressly require that officials disclose solicitations made on their behalf by staffers, relatives or campaign workers. Seemann said that leaves out many campaign solicitations.

“We believe that this omission could possibly be used to circumvent the law,” Seemann said.

Edward Rapier Jr., who heads the contract section in the Jefferson Parish attorney’s office, said the disclosure law’s language is “unambiguous” and it applies only to solicitations made by elected officials themselves. If the council had wanted or intended to include solicitations made by others, he said, they would have included those in the ordinance.

Councilman at-Large Chris Roberts, who authored the ordinance, said his aim was to shine light on elected officials personally calling or visiting contractors to ask for contributions. He said the ordinance, as written, achieved that purpose.

“The bottom line is this: It’s inappropriate for any elected official to make personal contact with a vendor to solicit a contribution. That can be perceived as pressure,” Roberts said. “I’ve never solicited contractors personally.”

But Roberts said he’s opposed to changing the ordinance to require disclosure of solicitations made by others. Roberts said that can be problematic, considering campaign staffers aren’t the only ones who may ask a vendor to support a candidate or to attend an event.

“I can’t control who can make a solicitation,” Roberts said.

Councilmen Ben Zahn and Mark Spears also said they didn’t see a need to expand the new requirement. Spears said disclosure of requests made personally by council members is enough. Zahn, in an e-mail message, said the parish has more transparency now than ever before, and said it’s important to avoid overkill.

“What happens if my wife calls my brother-in-law asking him to attend a fundraiser on a comp ticket. Then, he then decides to contribute?” Zahn wrote.

Seemann, however, suggested that contractors solicited by public officials or by others on the officials’ behalf face the same pressure to contribute, because the elected officials approve contracts.

Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng, in an email, said that the ethics and good government laws Jefferson Parish has passed in the last three years put it in the forefront of reform compared to other local governments in the state. She cited, for example, the new inspector general office, which is set to be in place in 2013. But she said new requirements also have to consider the burden placed on companies looking to do business in Jefferson Parish.

“If we are looking to get the highest quality of goods and services for our taxpayers, we want as many companies as possible bidding on our projects and we need to strike the right balance,” she said.

Council Chairman Elton Lagasse and Councilmen Ricky Templet and Paul Johnston didn’t respond to e-mail messages seeking comment for this story Wednesday.

Contractors seeking no-bid work in Jefferson are required to file affidavits listing any political contributions given by the firm or its principal owners in the last two years. The requirement has helped bring public attention to the large number of contributions given by people who receive parish contracts.

Companies that had contracts pending at Wednesday’s council meeting, for example, gave more than $267,000 to council members over the last four years, according to data from contractor affidavits and state campaign finance records compiled by Citizens for Good Government.

The group on Wednesday also renewed its call for the council to adopt recommendations by the Bureau of Governmental Research to limit council members’ discretion in approving no-bid contracts.

In particular, Citizens for Good Government asked that the council lower, from $300,000 to $100,000, the threshold for so-called “routine” engineering contracts awarded from pre-selected lists. Traditionally, council members let the district representative make the selection, without any competitive proposals considered. But Margaret Baird, chairwoman of Citizens for Good Government, asked the council to use random selection of contractors from the pre-approved list, or randomly select a small number of contractors and ask for competitive proposals.

“Although we realize that it is perfectly legal for the council members to award these contracts to their large campaign donors, it does concern us, and we believe that this needs to change,” she told the council.

Roberts, one of two council members elected parishwide, noted that district representatives make the selection in “routine” engineering contracts, but he said a key issue is whether a different system could cause delays for getting projects completed and out to bid. Delays at times can cost the parish money, he said.

Zahn said that he would consider random selections with strong stipulations, but he would not support the reduction of approved vendors down to $100,000.

“I just don’t think that’s very practical,” he said.

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