In The News › Mayoral candidates still leery of pledge

Apr 20, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

Mayoral candidates still leery of pledge

Mayoral candidates still leery of pledge
But they vow honesty in awarding contracts
Thursday, April 20, 2006
By Gordon Russell
Staff writer

Four years ago, as Mayor Marc Morial prepared to leave office with a raft of controversial deals
in his wake, perhaps no issue was more central to the mayoral campaign than how contracts
would be awarded under the incoming administration.

This year presents a different landscape. Although a few contracts awarded by Mayor Ray Nagin
stirred minor controversy, he has largely managed to steer clear of the allegations of cronyism
and patronage that persisted under Morial, who has seen friends, a relative and a department
head indicted since he left office.

Not only has the whiff of scandal died down, the city is a far different place than it was in 2002.
With post-Katrina New Orleans on its knees, the manner in which contracts are parceled out has
taken a back seat to more pressing topics such as how the city will pay its bills and the path
rebuilding should take.

Yet if contracting is no longer at center stage, it’s still a major issue in the eyes of many voters
and some candidates, in large part because little has been done systematically to change the
process that has given the city a reputation for back-room dealings.

Also, this year, as in 2002, the watchdog Bureau of Governmental Research challenged
candidates for mayor to sign a pledge promising to essentially turn over the power to award
service contracts to panels of professionals.

So far, as was the case four years ago, most of the major candidates have declined to sign the
agreement, instead peddling a variety of less concrete solutions they say would prevent the
kinds of scandals that have long bedeviled New Orleans. With two days to go before Saturday’s
primary, three candidates have signed the pledge: Audubon Nature Institute Chief Executive Ron
Forman, activist Leo Watermeier and former City Councilwoman Peggy Wilson.

Limiting power

Signing the pledge means that within 90 days of taking office, each would issue an executive
order that sets up a system of independent panels of professionals in relevant fields — architects,
engineers, lawyers, etc. — that would rank all bidders for city contracts. The mayor would not
select the members of the panels, and would have limited ability to reject the panel’s
recommendation.

Of course, there’s always the chance that a candidate doesn’t follow through with the promise to
enact the pledge. Nagin was the only major candidate to sign the pledge in 2002, but during the
runoff he explained that his vision for contracting reform differed substantially from the process
described in the pledge. He nonetheless promised to implement his version within 100 days.
However, Nagin waited more than three years before enacting any sort of change in the process.
And when he finally announced his reforms two months before Hurricane Katrina blew into town,
BGR President Janet Howard said they had “no resemblance” to what her organization had
proposed.

The major change Nagin introduced was to include a private citizen, selected by either the
Chamber of Commerce or the Urban League, to the panel of two City Hall administrators that
reviews all bid proposals for professional services contracts worth at least $150,000. Typically,
about 50 contracts awarded annually fall into that category.

It’s not clear whether Nagin’s changes have been fully implemented. In the aftermath of Katrina,
the panels that have reviewed bid proposals reviewed by The Times-Picayune have included
only city administrators. The Nagin administration could not list any contracts awarded under the
new procedures Wednesday.

Nagin: ‘No scandals’

When he announced the changes, Nagin said he felt he had fulfilled his pledge to reform the
process, and he continues to say that today. “My record speaks for itself,” he said in an e-mail
Wednesday. “I have been transparent, accountable, and consistent with reforms. I do not see the
need for further reforms on contracting at this time.”

Nagin emphasized those points in a televised debate Tuesday, adding that there have been “no
scandals” in his administration.

While even Nagin’s opponents concede that he has awarded fewer controversial contracts than
his predecessor, they don’t echo his view that the process has been cleaned up entirely.
Several candidates, for instance, have made hay over a contract the Nagin administration was
contemplating to dispose of thousands of abandoned vehicles in city streets. The company
selected submitted the highest bid the city received. Furthermore, the city failed to look into the
possibility that it could actually make money getting rid of the cars.

Clarify the boundary

In Wilson’s view, one major problem is that the line between professional-services contracts and
those that must be given to the low bidder, such as construction jobs or the purchase of goods,
has been blurred. The car-removal contract, for instance, could fall under public bid laws, she
said, as could a controversial parking-meter installation and management contract the Nagin
administration awarded in 2004.

The first thing Wilson said she would do is to propose an ordinance that defines professionalservices
contracts and requires that everything that does not meet the definition be given to the
low bidder.

Most of the four major candidates who did not sign the BGR pledge agree that some sort of
reform is needed, but none has committed to a process that completely removes the power of
patronage from the mayor’s office.

Of them, lawyer Virginia Boulet offers the most specific plans. Drawing on her background as a
corporate lawyer, she said she would adopt the post-Enron accounting standards for public
companies that are spelled out in the federal Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

“There’s no reason we shouldn’t run it (City Hall) like a business, with openness, transparency
and written processes about how you make sure there is no fraud,” she said. “If we went out
there and said we are adopting the rules of Sarbanes-Oxley, it would be over.”

Professional services proposals would be judged on “objective criteria,” Boulet said, with much
greater weight given to price than under the model used now, in which price is one of many
factors.

Lawyer Rob Couhig said he does not believe it would be “appropriate” to take the power of
awarding contracts away from the mayor. “We’re not going to go to third parties for approval,” he
said.

Instead, he said he would sign a “personal ethics and accountability pledge” and would “operate
in the open totally.” In addition, he said, he would announce the winner of each contract, but then
wait for two weeks to sign it to allow for additional public input.

“We’ll have public discourse so we can show the public the whole practice is aboveboard,” he
said.

Others steer clear

Landrieu said he is committed to changing the process but did not want to sign the BGR pledge
because it “hasn’t been vetted by other important community groups” ranging from religious
leaders to professional organizations.

In addition, he claimed in a debate Tuesday night that the pledge did not adequately protect
participation in city contracts by minority – and woman-owned companies.

However, Howard of the BGR said Wednesday that the pledge does not limit in any way the
mayor’s ability to steer work to such firms. For instance, if the mayor decides that 40 percent of
professional services contracts should go to minority firms, the panel would judge the proposals
accordingly.

Landrieu offered no specifics on what his process would look like, other than that it would include
the receipt of input from experts.

In crafting his reforms, Landrieu said he would seek input from a variety of groups and study the
“best practices” used in other cities. He left open the question of whether the mayor or an
independent panel should make the call on contracts at the end of the day.

“I’m not married to either process,” he said. “I’m not prepared to make that determination until
they come back and tell me what process gets us the result that we need. And whatever that
process is, is one that I’ll abide by.”

The Rev. Tom Watson said he has never read the BGR pledge but does not intend to sign it. He
noted that he is a pastor and a “man of integrity” who is “on divine assignment.” That should be
enough to inspire faith in how he does business, Watson said.

“I don’t need no group to box me in,” he said.

To select contractors, Watson said he would rely on his staff as well as some type of “citizen
input.” On certain types of contracts, he might seek the opinion of an outside expert as well, he
said.

“Say for an engineering contract, I might bring in an expert to help me choose, someone who is
as unbiased as possible,” he said.
. . . . . . .
Gordon Russell can be reached at grussell@timespicayune.com or at (504) 826-3347.

Apr 20, 2006

Source: Times-Picayune

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