Despite a local law requiring the city of New Orleans to post all of its contracts on its website, the city’s public facing contract database hasn’t worked since December 2019, when the local government was hit with a cyber attack that severely debilitated operations.
At a press conference last month, New Orleans Chief Information Officer Kim LaGrue said that the city had “recovered about 80 percent of our services and applications” since the cyber attack. That 80 percent included the online vendor portal, which allows vendors and suppliers to view contract opportunities and bid on them.
But a public-facing database showing copies of the contracts the city has already signed is still down, in spite of a city law that requires those contracts to be posted online. A link on the city’s website leads to an error message.
“The contracts database is one of the last applications to be recovered post cyber-attack, and we expect to have it fully functional by September,” said LaTonya Norton, a spokesperson for Mayor LaToya Cantrell, in an email to The Lens. “Until then, users can access the procurement website at Nola.gov/purchasing and request information from the procurement office.”
The administration did not respond to follow-up questions.
A 2008 city law requires the city’s chief administrative officer to ensure “all contracts are placed on the city’s website in a conspicuous manner for at least five years after the expiration of the contract.”
The law was passed amid calls for then-Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration to be more transparent about its contracting practices.
At the time, Nagin’s administration faced a growing scandal — first uncovered by Lee Zurik and Lens cofounder Karen Gadbois — over the city-funded New Orleans Affordable Homeownership program, an anti-blight program, and the close ties between NOAH Director Stacey Jackson and several NOAH contractors. Jackson was later indicted on federal corruption charges. She pleaded guilty in 2014. Nagin would also go on to face federal charges in a separate case involving kickbacks for city work. He was convicted in 2014.
The law also requires the City Council, which awards contracts separately from the city’s executive branch, to post its contracts online. The City Council does far less outsourcing than the executive branch, though it does maintain a few large contracts, including several multimillion-dollar contracts with firms that provide consulting services on utilities regulation.
Its contracts web page appears to be out-of-date as well. No contracts have been added in 2020, though the council has voted to approve contracts for this year.
“The ability of residents to monitor contracts and ensure that their tax and fee dollars are being spent appropriately is vital to government accountability,” Keith Twitchell, president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans — which promotes civic engagement and government transparency — said in a statement. “People who cannot track these dollars are much less likely to support future revenue measures, or trust government in general. While these are obviously difficult times for everyone, governments included, City Hall has to make this a priority.”
The past several months have been an particularly important time for transparency in government spending, as a series of disasters created budget shortfalls, new spending needs and emergency proclamations and powers.
The city has issued several emergency proclamations related to the coronavirus pandemic, the cyber attack, and the collapse of the Hard Rock construction site in October 2019. Those emergency proclamations allow for more flexibility than the normal procurement process, in certain circumstances even allowing the city to bypass competitive bidding requirements.
That’s spelled out in state law and local policy, and executive orders from Cantrell and former-Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
Stephen Stuart, research director of local watchdog the Bureau of Governmental Research, said that it has become more important to get the database back up and running “over time, as we get further into the year and especially with the emergency procurement that happened during the pandemic.”
A WDSU investigation earlier this month found a lack of transparency in the city’s response to the cyber attack. The city has spent $4.2 million so far on the recovery, including 500 new computers and new cybersecurity tools, LaGrue said last month. She said the city expects to ultimately spend $7 million.
The WDSU report claimed there were major contracts, including one for $112,000, where the city redacted the name of the vendor.
“To give that out would expose our security posture,” LaGrue told WDSU. “The types of security vendors we are engaging with, giving that information or releasing that is a major security risk to us.”
Twitchell said that looking forward, the contract database will become vital for transparency as the city begins to use $500 million in municipal bonding authority that voters approved through a ballot initiative last year. The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate reported last week that the city will be issuing $200 million worth of bonds “in the coming months” to fix potholes, improve drainage systems and buy new equipment for the police and fire departments.
A recent report from the Bureau of Governmental Research found that the $500 million authorization was nearly double any previous bond election going back to 1995. Twitchell said that the bond issue and the “subsequent contract letting on the horizon” created a sense of urgency to get the contract database back up and running.
Stuart stressed the importance of the public contract database by recalling the burdensome process of analyzing government contracts in 2010 for a report called “Inside Outsourcing: A Year in the Life of City Contracting.” The report looked at 2009 contracts, when the public database was still new. At the time, it was notoriously difficult to use, and it was incomplete. Contracts and contract extensions were frequently not posted publicly, requiring BGR to submit a public records request and review thousands of pages of paper records.
“It took us several months to review the paper records of those contracts through a public records request,” Stuart told The Lens. “The process of going through all the contracts, all the contract amendments, was really a cumbersome process. So providing a database is important because it just gets the public much easier access to scrutinize how the city is outsourcing.”