By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |

The long road city contracts travel before being signed is, at least temporarily, even twistier and more dimly lit than it was when Ray Nagin was mayor.

For the two years before Mayor Mitch Landrieu took office, city officials and the Inspector General could monitor the progress of a particular contract through an internal electronic routing system put in place in 2008 and now scrapped – like many another Nagin-era attempt to embrace fancy technologies.

The Electronic Contract Routing System let authorized city employees see draft contracts and associated documents on a secure online server before a final contract was signed by the mayor and posted online for the general public.

Nagin implemented the system in the hope that it would expedite and streamline procurement, but internal transparency was an additional, perhaps unintentional, benefit. The routing system, for instance, gave Inspector General Edouard Quatrevaux the glimpse of draft contracts that prompted him to warn against a controversial plan that would have given Nagin political allies millions of dollars to redevelop the Municipal Auditorium into a state-of-the-art performance and production complex. The plan was deemed a boondoggle and abandoned.

“Because the municipal auditorium contract was in the routing system, we saw it and were able to advise the city, whoo-hah, this is going fast,” Greg Fahrenholt, an attorney on the IG’s staff, said. “Now, without the routing system, we are basically left in the dark until the contract is complete.”

Landrieu stopped using the system because it confused city officials and vendors by generating contracts electronically before executive decisions were made, and does not match the procurement process the administration wants to put in place, Andy Kopplin, the city’s chief administrative officer, said.

The electronic system was introduced after Nagin’s technology chief Greg Meffert left the administration, but before he was indicted on felony corruption counts by U.S. Attorney Jim Lettten. It is one of several Nagin-era technologies cancelled by the Landrieu administration, the most notorious of them being the now defunct crime cameras that figured in Meffert’s conviction.

“Imagine a bad process that the city then spent a lot of money building a technology to support; that was what ECRS was,” Kopplin said. “It was custom-designed piece of software to support an inefficient, poorly designed contract approval system.”

He contends that the system misled vendors and city officials by displaying draft contracts that were not necessarily going to be signed. “You had a whole series of folks that were anticipating a contract when the baby steps that come before a signature hadn’t been done,” Kopplin said.

The city expects to have an improved electronic routing system up and running within 40 days, Kopplin said: “We re-engineered the process and will recreate a new electronic routing system, just maybe not ECRS.” Meanwhile, he said, the city fulfills its commitment to transparency by posting signed contracts online and providing copies of public bid materials to the IG, before contracts are signed.

Broadly speaking, Quatrevaux is pleased with the improvements he’s seen on the transparency and accountability front since Landrieu came to office. That said, he hopes the administration creates a system for tracking contracts sooner rather than later. “We no longer see the universe of procurement activity in one place and we need to,” he said.