In The News › New Orleans City Council’s attempt to override Ray Nagin’s veto comes up short

Feb 19, 2009

Source: Times Picayune

Filed under: Contracting, Governance, Orleans Parish

New Orleans City Council’s attempt to override Ray Nagin’s veto comes up short

New Orleans City Council’s attempt to override Ray Nagin’s veto comes up short
by Michelle Krupa, The Times-Picayune
Thursday February 19, 2009, 9:53 PM

After nearly two hours of often racially charged debate about the desirability and implications of government transparency, the New Orleans City Council failed Thursday to override Mayor Ray Nagin’s veto of an ordinance requiring committees that rank would-be city vendors to meet in public.

The result was in marked contrast to the seven-member council’s unanimous approval two weeks ago of the ordinance, which would have required the panels to hold open meetings when they review proposals from firms seeking legal, architectural and other professional service contracts.

Five votes are needed to override a mayoral veto, and the council could muster only four, though no one actually voted to sustain the veto.

The decision came down to Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, who recused herself from voting. The unusual move appeared to be out of step with state law but was allowed by council President Jackie Clarkson.

Earlier, Hedge-Morrell had called the contract issue “the hardest vote I’m ever going to make, “ and said public discussion of the veto override had highlighted institutional distrust among African-Americans, who she said sometimes consider “transparency” a buzz word for attempts to lock them out of public business.

“Is it about transparency? Is it about equal access? Why can’t both be spoken at the same time? But that’s the way the African-American community feels, and if that’s the way they feel, that’s their reality. And you can’t shove that reality aside, “ she said.

In the end, Hedge-Morrell, who is black, said she did not want to vote to fuel more racial antagonism and worsen already poor relations between the mayor and council.

“What is the purpose of dividing our city more than it already is?” she said. “The worst thing I’ve ever seen is what’s going on in this city right now and how polarized the two communities are becoming.”

Voting for the override were Arnie Fielkow, Clarkson, Stacy Head and Shelley Midura; all are white.

Two members absent

The council’s two other black members, James Carter and Cynthia Willard-Lewis, were absent for the vote. Willard-Lewis missed the entire meeting; the council clerk said she was in Washington, D.C. Carter had been present earlier but had to leave because of another appointment, Clarkson said.

In explaining her refusal to vote, Hedge-Morrell also offered a rationale that even the measure’s supporters had conceded: Because Nagin this week issued an executive order disbanding the committees he had set up, a veto override would have had little practical effect.

With the committees disbanded, Nagin has said he will make contracting decisions by himself, with input only from a couple of top aides, mirroring the method used in City Hall until 2005. The system of having committees, including a citizen member for large contracts, make recommendations to the mayor — even though he could ignore them — was a modest reform measure implemented by Nagin that year.

Council members did not challenge the committee system but said the state’s open meetings law required the panels to meet in public — a view backed by two opinions by state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell.

Nagin countered that the city’s Home Rule Charter trumps state law and that the council’s ordinance violates the separation of powers by infringing on the executive’s prerogatives.

Charter change considered

If the council wants to require contract review panels to meet in public, voters must amend the charter to require it, the mayor has said.

Some council members have said they are considering proposing a charter amendment, though they have given no specifics.

Fielkow, who spearheaded the ordinance, said he knew the measure had generated opposition, though for reasons that he did not intend.

“Let’s talk about what this is not about, “ he said in opening the debate. “It is not about a disrespect for the office of the mayor. We are not as a council trying to take away from the powers of the executive branch of government, nor are we violating the separation of powers. Those are bedrock principles of government.

“This is also not, as has been suggested by some, a power grab or political grandstanding, “ Fielkow said. “And what this is certainly not about is the issue of race.”

But Hedge-Morrell, along with several speakers, argued that the council should not ignore the response, rooted in centuries of official racism, of many black residents.

‘Why always Orleans?’

Sewerage & Water Board member Ben Edwards explained some of the skepticism felt by many black residents. “What many African-Americans don’t understand is why now and why New Orleans? You have Jefferson Parish, you have St. Tammany Parish and St. Bernard. Why always Orleans?” he said.

Sidestepping the race debate, House Speaker Pro Tem Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, urged the council to let Nagin’s veto stand, saying the charter gives the mayor sole authority to create a contract review process.

“I am not for undermining the charter, “ she said. “I’m going to ask you to uphold the law.”

Fielkow said that was what his proposal was intended to do.

Several other speakers made impassioned pleas in support of the override, arguing that transparency in awarding contracts would level the playing field for all vendors, particularly small and minority firms that historically have been shut out of city contracts.

“We are trying to create a procedure where it is not about who you know at the table but what you are bringing to the table, “ Fielkow said.

Leonard Odom, the city’s interim inspector general, said a nationwide panel of inspectors general is looking into whether cities and states that don’t have open contracting procedures will be eligible for money through the $787 billion federal stimulus package.

And Janet Howard of the watchdog Bureau of Governmental Research said opening the contracting process would help ensure that public dollars that could be invested in programs for the poor are not wasted.

“If we don’t use public dollars well, if we don’t use them efficiently, it is the people who rely on public services that pay the highest price, “ she said.

. . . . . . .

Staff writer Bruce Eggler contributed to this report.Michelle Krupa can be reached at mkrupa@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3312.

Feb 19, 2009

Source: Times Picayune

Filed under: Contracting, Governance, Orleans Parish

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