In The News › Orleans voters to decide on amendments involving city contracts, inauguration dates

Orleans voters to decide on amendments involving city contracts, inauguration dates

By Bruce Eggler

The Advocate

November 3, 2014

New Orleans voters will be asked Tuesday to approve two amendments to the City Charter.

One deals with procedures for awarding professional services contracts that are not covered by public bid laws. The same amendment also would require the city to maintain a disadvantaged business enterprise program, though it says nothing about how that program should be managed.

The second amendment would change the date for inaugurating the mayor and other city officials, to move it closer to when the officials will be elected, starting in 2017.

Neither amendment seems to have attracted much, if any, organized opposition.

Contracting amendment

At present, the charter says only that “contracts for professional services administered by the offices, departments, boards, and other agencies of the executive branch shall be awarded on the basis of a competitive selection process which shall be established by executive order of the mayor.”

How that “competitive selection process” should work is left entirely up to the mayor, and throughout the city’s history, there have been complaints that campaign contributions or personal friendships often have proved more important than qualifications in determining who gets contracts for lawyers, architects, accountants, consultants and other “professional services.”

The proposed amendment would incorporate into the charter certain features of the professional services contracting reforms that Mayor Mitch Landrieu established by executive order in 2010.

It would require that each contractor selection be made by a committee composed of at least three government employees with “relevant subject matter expertise” and require that the selection committees evaluate proposals in open, publicly announced meetings. The mayor could not be a member of a selection committee, although he could control who is appointed and most of the committee members would be members of his administration.

The Bureau of Governmental Research, a longtime advocate of reforms in how professional services contracts are awarded, points out that the proposed amendment omits some of the key changes Landrieu put in place for his administration.

For example, BGR notes, it does not provide for a centralized procurement office to oversee the contracting process, it does not require the selection committees to use a numerical grading system based on detailed, weighted criteria, and it does not specifically require the mayor to execute a contract with the applicant recommended by the committee. Thus, a future mayor might decide to ignore the committee’s advice and give the job to someone else.

“That said,” BGR said in a recent report, “the amendment would provide the public with more protection than the current charter provision offers. It would require the use of selection committees with subject matter expertise and require that those committees conduct their work in public. Furthermore, the amendment at least implies that the committee — rather than the mayor — would select the winning proposals for professional service procurements.”

The amendment would allow the mayor to make exceptions to the selection process but only in emergency situations as authorized by law.

The same amendment would “require that the city establish and maintain a program to encourage disadvantaged business enterprises to participate in city contracts,” but this provision is even more vague than the language about professional services contracts. It says absolutely nothing about how the city should encourage DBEs — generally companies owned by racial minorities or women — or whether they should receive preferential consideration for certain contracts or be guaranteed a certain percentage of city work.

One reason for such vagueness is that the federal courts sometimes have ruled against the legality of such DBE programs, and supporters presumably want to retain as much flexibility as possible in devising strategies to help them.

In any case, mayors and City Council members have long expressed their devotion to helping DBEs, and the charter language is not likely to change that, whatever it says.

Finally, the charter amendment would do one other thing: It would give the city’s chief administrative officer, rather than the director of finance, the authority to sign contracts for the city. This change probably makes theoretical sense — the CAO is the No. 2 official in city government — but would be of little practical effect; both officials are mayoral appointees.

Inauguration amendment

The second amendment on the ballot has to do with the date of inaugurating the mayor and council members. It would shift the date from the first Monday in May to the second Monday in January starting in 2018.

The amendment comes in response to a change in election dates for the mayor and the council made by the Legislature in 2013.

Until 1986, New Orleans held municipal elections during October and November. The winners took office the following May — a long gap. In 1986, the Legislature acted to shorten the interval between the election and inauguration dates. As a result, primary elections now are held on the first Saturday in February, with runoffs four weeks later. The officials are still sworn in on the first Monday of May.

However, there have been complaints that the schedule means campaigns, and sometimes the elections themselves, are disrupted by events such as the year-end holidays, Carnival parades and Super Bowls.

A League of Women Voters study in 2011 came to no conclusion on how all the events affect voter turnout. However, it found that events such as parades could interfere with the drop-off and pickup of voting booths and voters’ access to polling places. The league recommended moving the local election dates back to the fall, and in 2013, the Legislature agreed.

Starting in 2017, primary elections will be held on the third Saturday in October, with runoffs four Saturdays later — almost six months before the May inauguration date. The proposed charter amendment would reduce that gap to a couple of months, comparable to the interval under the current election schedule.

If approved by voters, the amendment would take effect in June 2018. Officials elected in November 2017 would still take office in May 2018 but then would serve a truncated term ending in January 2022.

BGR notes that the change “would more closely align the inauguration date with the beginning of the city’s fiscal year (on Jan. 1). This would give incoming mayors greater control over the spending of funds budgeted by the previous administration for their first year in office.” Currently, a third of the fiscal year passes before the inauguration of a new mayor, “allowing the outgoing administration to spend budgeted funds without considering whether sufficient funds will remain to cover needs in the second half of the year.”

Despite its reservations about the wording of the provisions on professional services contracts, BGR has endorsed both charter amendments, and Landrieu and other city leaders are supporting their passage.

Appearing at a news conference last week with Landrieu, several council members endorsed the amendment on contracting, and no one has spoken out against the shift in inauguration dates.

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