How to squeeze payback politics out of city contracts for professional services

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Tulane University

David Marcello

David Marcello

Tulane University

With an election just ahead, now’s the time to demand that candidates for mayor and City Council commit unambiguously to reforming the way New Orleans procures professional services.

In a recent opinion column for The Lens, architect Steven Bingler decried the “culture of cronyism and corruption” — sometimes called “pay to play” — that for decades had been a notorious part of New Orleans politics. The practice, in abeyance during the Landrieu administration, links professional service contracts to campaign contributions.

Bingler recalls seeing too many contracts awarded “by a rigged request for qualifications (RFQ) process, in which potential consultants were asked to submit their credentials to a preselected committee of political appointees.”

This year, when we elect a new Mayor and City Council, we voters get a chance to improve how the city awards high-dollar contracts to lawyers, accountants, architects, engineers, and other professionals. Upon taking office, a new administration will either get it right, right away — or not at all during the four (or more likely eight) years thereafter.

Let’s consider why these types of contracts present special ethical problems and then consider possible remedies.

When city government needs to purchase a supply of No. 2 pencils, it follows a simple public bid process: Advertise how many pencils are needed and solicit bids; then on the designated day, open the envelopes and award a contract to whichever company submitted the lowest unit price for purchase of the desired quantity of pencils. This process is simple and cheap with no element of discretion in awarding the contract.

It’s not so simple in the realm of professional services. If you want your bridge to stay up after it’s built, you may not want to hire the cheapest engineer. When selecting professional service providers, city officials necessarily must consider competence, and consequently, they must exercise discretion in choosing among applicants for a contract.

But “discretion” need not amount to “unfettered discretion.” Elected officials should not use the award of professional service contracts like an ATM to reward their political friends and financial supporters.

Remember, the point of this exercise is to select the best professional service provider for a reasonable price. We should put professional expertise at the heart of the selection process.

Here’s how to enhance professional expertise in the selection process: Candidates should agree to place two members appointed by the New Orleans university presidents on every professional services evaluation committee

By the way, it’s a commitment needed equally from the candidates for both mayor and City Council, since current professional service procurement policies are set separately for the executive branch (by mayoral executive order), and by council rule for the legislative branch.

What good effects will flow from these two university appointees? I can think of three.

First, they will put professional expertise at the heart of the evaluation process. If it’s a contract for engineering services, we can expect appointees with engineering expertise. If it’s a financial services contract, we would expect appointees with accounting capability. Ditto as regards lawyers and architects and other professionals.

Second, we might expect racial diversity in the appointments, given the 50-50 split between our three  historically black universities — Dillard, Xavier and Southern at New Orleans — and their counterparts, Tulane, Loyola and the University of New Orleans.

Third, we’ll see transparency benefits from having two sets of “outside” eyes in the room when evaluation decisions are being made. Over time, if evaluations by the two university members are routinely “outliers” as compared with evaluations completed by other more political appointees, we can take note and consider corrective measures.

Bingler expressed another valid concern: “New Orleans could easily slip back into the ethical swamp.” Reforms implemented solely by mayoral executive order or council rule could prove as changeable as the wind and might easily be blown away by new elected officials who issue new orders or adopt new rules.

Lasting reform requires institutional stability. Nothing in city government is more stable than the Home Rule Charter.

We should ask mayoral and council candidates for a commitment to charter reform:

Will you support amending the city’s Home Rule Charter to implement a single, uniform policy for procurement of professional services, applicable citywide to every agency, board, commission, and department of municipal government?

The same Charter proposition could install other safeguards into city government, for example by requiring the use of weighted criteria announced in advance to evaluate professional service providers for specific contracts. The Charter should also require evaluation committees to comply with open meetings and public records laws by conducting all their business “in the sunshine” and by making all individual and group evaluation forms publicly available.

Will these suggested changes really make a difference? They will, if voters are serious about holding candidates accountable for their campaign commitments.

Now is the time to collect campaign commitments from candidates. It’s too late to ask for reform commitments after candidates win at the polls and are on their way to becoming elected officials.

Voters should be saying, “Don’t tell us you will ‘consider it later.’ Tell us now what you intend to do, if and when we elect you.”

In casting my vote next Saturday, I will be guided by candidates who pledge to put two university appointees on every professional service evaluation committee and who agree to support a Charter proposition that embeds procurement reforms in city government.

And then I’ll be watching to see that they do as they’ve promised.

David Marcello is executive director of The Public Law Center at Tulane Law School. He urges the public to question mayoral candidates Desiree Charbonnet and LaToya Cantrell at a meeting at 9 a.m. today, Saturday, Nov. 11, at St. Dominic Gym, 775 Harrison Ave., Lakeview.

Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.

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