Mayor Mitch Landrieu wants voters to change the city’s charter so that future administrations would have to use key parts of his competitive process to choose professional services firms.
In 2009, Mayor Ray Nagin eliminated selection committees and gave himself sole authority to select companies that provide professional services — contractors such as engineers, doctors, lawyers and business consultants.
Earlier this year, Nagin was convicted of corruption and bribery charges that involved steering city businesses to favored firms.
Shortly after Landrieu took office in 2010, he reinstated selection committees for those contracts.
Under the current city charter, another mayor could simply issue an executive order overturning Landrieu’s rules. The charter amendment would codify some of Landrieu’s competitive selection process, making it harder for a mayor to unilaterally decide who gets those contracts.
It would also require the permanent establishment of the city’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program, which is designed to help businesses owned by women and minorities get contracts and subcontracts with the city. And it would allow the city’s chief administrative officer to sign contracts if the mayor authorizes it.
The charter amendment would apply to professional services contracts worth more than $15,000 and signed by the executive branch. It would not apply to professional services contractors selected by the City Council, which has its own process. Nor would it apply to other types of executive-branch contracts — like those for materials — that are advertised through invitations to bid and selected based largely on price.
The charter can be changed only with a popular vote. If approved by the full City Council, which could happen as early as Thursday, the charter amendment would go before New Orleans voters in the Nov. 4 election.
On Tuesday, Landrieu administration officials Suchitra Satpathi and Eric Granderson presented the proposal to a City Council committee. The committee didn’t vote on the matter because it didn’t have a quorum, but that’s not required for the full council to take up the issue.
The proposal was mostly well received by the two council members there and the audience, but even some supporters said it should be further strengthened to guarantee fairness and transparency in city procurement.
The Bureau of Governmental Research has called for changes like the ones outlined on Tuesday. President Janet Howard warned at the meeting that one provision would allow a mayor to get around the competitive selection process if he deemed it “in the best interest of the city.”
“This language,” she said, “would practically invite future mayors to create exceptions.”
Howard said that provision should only apply in emergencies.
Coleman Ridley, director of the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region, also called for that exception to be narrowed, saying in an interview that it is “obviously vague and ambiguous.”
Howard and Ridley also said the charter amendment should spell out the authority of selection committees.
The city’s charter currently requires a competitive process to choose professional service firms. However, it leaves it up to the mayor to decide what that process is. Under the Landrieu administration, selection committees rate and choose proposals from firms vying for each contract.
Landrieu’s proposed amendment would maintain the mayor’s authority to establish the competitive process. But it would add language requiring that “competitive selection be made by a selection committee composed of individuals from within local government.” It further adds that the mayor himself could not be a member of the committee.
It does not, however, explicitly say that the mayor must abide by the selection committee’s choice. Howard and Ridley said that language should be included.
When the mayor disagrees with a committee’s decision, they said, his only option should be to terminate the selection process altogether. That is already part of Landrieu’s executive order, but it’s not in the charter amendment.
Ridley further asked that the amendment be changed to guarantee that selection committees’ evaluations are considered public records, available for review by anyone. That also is included in Landrieu’s executive order but not in the proposed charter amendment.
The provision to require a permanent establishment of the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program was mostly noncontroversial. But one speaker, Willis Gildersleeve, said the program should better target those who are closed out of city business.
“You should have a disparity study to understand who’s being left out,” he said.
Voters will face a number of proposals on the November ballot, including one to double the portion of property taxes that go to police and fire protection and another to allow the sheriff to use another portion of property taxes to run the jail.
District D Councilman Jared Brossett said he is a bit concerned about “charter and constitutional amendment fatigue.”
Granderson said that a vote to change the charter must take place during a congressional, mayoral or gubernatorial election. With no guarantee of a December runoff, this vote has to take place in November to ensure that the law can take effect next year.
Satpathi responded, “This is a very important issue for the city, so we wanted to put this on the ballot in an election where we anticipate a high voter turnout.”
Read the proposed amendment to the city charter