Jefferson council defers contracting reform

The Jefferson Parish Council on Wednesday deferred a long-awaited vote on an ordinance designed to help depoliticize the system the council uses to award parish contracts, saying it needs to be adjusted to allow parish department heads to have a say in the process.

Although state law requires many contracts to be awarded to the lowest bidder, others — including those for professional services from lawyers, architects, engineers and others — are not covered by that rule.

Under the current system of requesting proposals for parish contracts that don’t fall under the public bid law, responding firms are graded by a committee of four parish employees, with a specific weight given to various factors, including cost.

But when those scores are presented to the council, members can award the contract to whichever firm they choose.

The ordinance deferred Wednesday would require the council to select the highest-scoring proposal, except that it could give the contract to the firm scoring second-highest if its total score was within 5 percent of the winner’s, or if the highest-ranked firm’s proposal would cost at least 10 percent more than the second-ranked firm’s.

The ordinance also would prohibit unclassified employees — political appointees not protected by civil service rules — from being voting members of the evaluation committees.

At-large Councilman Chris Roberts said the decision to defer came after Parish President John Young expressed concerns about that clause.

Young told the council he is afraid the clause would rob the process of the valuable experience of department heads, who generally are unclassified employees.

For example, Young said, if the parish is hiring a firm to do drainage work, he wants the decision to include the input of the parish’s most knowledgeable expert in that area, Drainage Director Mitch Theriot.

Janet Howard, president of the Bureau of Governmental Research, a nonpartisan watchdog group that has been pressing the parish to take council discretion out of the contracting process in order to eliminate the potential for corruption and political favoritism, both real and perceived, said her group has never seen an instance where department heads are excluded.

She said BGR agrees such a measure would exclude valuable expertise from the process.

Howard said after the meeting that while the ordinance is a step in the right direction, BGR would like to see it go even further.

“We don’t think the council should have any discretion in selecting (winning proposals),” Howard said. “While this doesn’t completely take away discretion, it’s a step toward it.”

A few other interested parties also addressed the council on the issue.

Civic activist Margaret Baird said department heads could still be allowed to participate in the discussion, even if they couldn’t vote. But she also noted that her group, Citizens for Good Government, understands the process of reform requires give and take, and she said it generally supports the ordinance as a step in the right direction.

Patrice Williams-Smith, president and chief executive officer of the New Orleans Regional Black Chamber of Commerce, however, said her organization continues to oppose the ordinance.

She said reducing the council’s discretion in awarding contracts would inevitably lead to fewer minority firms — particularly newer, less established ones — getting contracts. She said the chamber is willing to help work on a plan that could achieve the ordinance’s desired ends without compromising the goal of making sure minority businesses aren’t elbowed out of parish contracts.

The ordinance will come up again at the council’s June 25 meeting.

Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.