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Jeff Council, Young and CFGG fight over BGR contracting reforms

20th August 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher TIdmore
Contributing Writer

The battle lines were drawn at the August 8 Jefferson Parish Council Meeting between Parish the grassroots allies of Parish President John Young and the Council­members over reforming the troubled process of awarding govern­ment contracts.

Young has endorsed the lion share of the Bureau of Govern­mental Research’s most recent report entitled, “Reforming Jeffer­son Parish’s Unusual Approach to Service Contracting.” The BGR calls for an independent process to choose service contracts, and such a reform has been the raison d’etre for a motley group of good government allies of the President called the Citizens for Good Government.

Like the BGR has preached in Orleans Parish, the current process of awarding contracts tends to reward political contributors at the expense of more cost-effective contenders. In Jefferson Parish, from the Broussard scandals over River Birch to cost overruns in parish construction projects, critics have contended the problem rests in the Parish Council­members ability to choose contractors with few safeguards and no independent oversight.

Attempting to change this on August 8, CFGG Chairman Marg­aret Baird, Vice-Chairman Margie Seemann, and CFGG member Betty Purcell collaborated in five-minute speeches to present CFGG’s proposed ordinance to implement changes to the Request for Proposal process based on BGR recommendations.

As Beard explained to the Weekly, “We spoke about the benefit of implementing the BGR recommendations for selecting the awardees of professional services contracts and for routine engineering contracts currently valued at less than $300,000.”

“Although Parish President Young has indicated that he has requested the Parish Attorney to draft an ordinance to implement one of the important recommendations in the BGR report and he spoke favorably about another, no ordinances which implement ANY of the BGR recommendations have yet been included in any council agenda for action by the council, even though the BGR report was published three months ago.”

“Therefore, as previously reported, CFGG has written an ordinance to reform the Request for Proposal process based on the recommendations in the BGR report, with ordinances to implement other BGR recommendations planned for the future.”

The authority which permits CFGG to introduce such an ordinance is Section 5.01 of Jefferson Parish’s Home Rule charter, which states: “The electors of the parish shall have the power to propose to the Parish Council passage or repeal of ordinances and to vote on the question if the council refuses action…”

“We have said,” Beard continued, “that we hope that the council will either not refuse action and/or will support other ordinances which implement the BGR recommendations.”

In an interview with The Louisiana Weekly, Margie See­mann noted, “There is no doubt that the council has no desire to give up their power to select the winners of non-bid contracts. As far as we know, the councilmen have been silent on the Bureau of Governmental Research Report, other than a few initial comments when the report was released this past May. At that time, Jefferson Parish Council Chairman Elton Lagasse said he wouldn’t cede the council’s authority to select contractors. I don’t think he has changed his mind since then. Hence there is very little chance that the council will put such a charter change on the ballot.”

“However, Citizens for Good Government does not quit on issues just because there is little chance for success. We just continue to do what we think is right, and we therefore intend to continue to point out over and over again that the way that the council currently selects the awardees of non-bid contracts is extremely detrimental to the citizens of Jefferson Parish. This may cause some embarrassment to the councilmen, because of their refusal to do the right thing for the citizens of Jefferson by reforming the process used to award these contracts.”

“The council is permitted to ignore the analysis and recommendations of the evaluation committees and to select any of the eligible contractors that they desire for any reason they desire. Not only are they not required to select the top-ranked contractor by the evaluation committee, but their selected contractor doesn’t even have to be in the top five.

“Furthermore, the councilmen are not required to consider price when awarding non-bid contracts. Of course, it just so happens that many of the companies which the councilmen select for non-bid contracts just happen to be large contributors to their campaigns.”

“We intend to keep talking about this and recommending that non-bid contracts be awarded to the top-ranked company by the evaluation committee based on the evaluation of detailed, relevant criteria, with price included in the evaluation when permitted by state law. The role of the council should be to either accept or reject the top-ranked contractor or terminate the procurement.”

As to why Citizens for Good Government view the BGR recommendations as so essential, See­mann explained, “BGR did extensive research in preparing their report and they made recommendations on essentially every aspect of service contracting in Jefferson Parish. Their research not only included interviews with Jefferson Parish Council members and members of the executive branch, but BGR consulted ex­perts from the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing, the National Procure­ment Institute and a procurement consulting firm. It reviewed the American Bar Association’s Model Procure­ment Code, as well as contracting textbooks published by NIGP and the International City/County Man­age­ment Assoc­iation. And BGR also interviewed and gathered information from procurement offices in 15 cities and counties.”

“Then based on their analysis of this significant amount of information, BGR came up with recommendations that draw on best practices research for reforms that CFGG believes are desperately needed in Jefferson Parish’s service contracting.”

“Because of the effort that BGR expended in producing their thoroughly researched and completely documented report on Jefferson’s service contracting, CFGG believes that BGR’s conclusions are entirely justified, and we have great confidence in their recommendations.”

“In addition, a number of BGR’s recommendations are identical to recommendations that CFGG has been making for some time in speeches at council meetings and in letters sent to our elected officials. Therefore we are gratified that some of our recommendations have been validated by BGR.”

“Furthermore, CFGG believes that good government in Jefferson Parish requires reforming the way in which non-bid, service contracts are awarded in Jefferson. It is essential to implement many of the BGR recommendations to accomplish these reforms.”

Seeman noted that their proposal has three basic parts: Firstly, “Jefferson Parish should require the evaluation committee for RFP contracts to consider price in its scoring of the proposals. [Second], when issuing an RFP, Jefferson Parish should explain in writing why a sealed bid process would not be practical or advantageous for the parish. [And Third], RFP contracts should be awarded to the proposer whom the evaluation committee ranks highest based on their scoring of relevant, clearly articulated criteria; the role of the council should be limited to approving or rejecting the evaluation committee’s recommended contractor or cancelling the procurement.”

Seemann also noted that her organization that “although our proposed changes are also contained in the BGR report, they are actually changes which we have been recommending for some time.” And, she added that the CFGG has also advocated awarding RFP contracts to the highest ranked contractor, a position that has not as yet been endorsed by the parish president, but of which, the organization is hopeful will be adopted.

Besides the contracting process, CFGG has said that a full-time parish president is a key way to avoid the conflicts of business that plagued the Broussard Admini­stration. The organization seeks a charter change to make the position full time, and they do so with the full support of the current President John Young.

As Margaret Baird explained to the Weekly, “Jefferson Parish President John Young did endorse a charter change, which would require the parish president’s position to be a full-time job. He has voluntarily committed to making his job full-time. To be an effective president of Jefferson Parish, we believe, would require the full attention of anyone occupying this office. He should not be distracted by having an outside law practice in which he was an active participant or by having an active role in another job.”

“We have seen what happened when former Parish President Aaron Broussard served in a part time capacity. Mr. Broussard has been indicted on numerous charges and, based on [the daily paper’s] articles, it appears that some payments may have been disguised as fees for legal services.”

“We realize that not having an outside source of income, such as a legal practice, would severely limit the financial resources of the parish president. At the present time an ordinance ties the president’s pay to that of judges.”

Of course, that would mean that the parish president would have to receive an drastic increase in pay, but Beard says that would be in line with other full-time Chief Executives. “Citizens for Good Government believes that the parish president should be the highest-paid person in his administration. Currently, he is not. Therefore, we would support a salary increase for the parish president which would, however, require an ordinance.”

In the wake of the Whit­mer/Broussard scandals, Seemann noted that there does seem to be a new attitude towards transparency in Jefferson. “I do believe that there has been an effort in favor of transparency as a result of the scandals. A number of pieces of legislation have been passed by the council in this regard, such as the ordinance which requires contractors to file current Campaign Contribution Affidavits with every contract, every change order, and every contract amendment. This information has been very helpful to us in preparing our Campaign Contri­bution reports, which we present at each council meeting.”

“However, there are some things that the council does not appear to be willing to do. Giving serious consideration to the BGR recommendations appears to be one thing that the council does not seem to be interested in, and the council appears to be particularly opposed to giving up their power to select the winners of non-bid contracts.”

This article was originally published in the August 20, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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