French Market Corp. sends disputed parking contract back out to bid

The French Market Corp., facing allegations of favoritism from a local contractor, voted Tuesday to reissue a request for bids to run three city-owned parking lots around the French Quarter.

The issue came up because Jim Huger, the owner of Premium Parking, has accused the French Market Corp.'s interim director, Ann Duplessis, of effectively putting a thumb on the scales for another company, SP Plus.

SP Plus is a joint venture between the company that already runs the parking lots, a national firm called Standard Parking, and local businessman Ronnie Burns.

Huger's company technically submitted the low bid, but Duplessis prepared an analysis for the board that suggested Huger left out a number of expenses, meaning his bid would ultimately cost the city more.

French Market Corp. board members were set to vote on a motion Tuesday that would have extended Standard Parking's contract on a month-by-month basis while the board worked toward a final decision. But board member Sandy Shilstone introduced a substitute motion to send the contract back out for public bid.

Shilstone said she thought it was the best move "in light of what has occurred and the questions that the board has had." She also pointed out that the French Market Corp. is likely to have a new director within the next week or so, and argued for involving whoever gets the job in the bidding process.

City Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge Morrell, Dorian Bennett, Russ Carll and Ira Middleberg voted along with Shilstone to send the request for bids out again, with Dottie Reese opposed. Reese said she thought the bids were scored fairly the first time around and didn't see any need for repeating the process.

Huger addressed the board after the vote.

He stopped short of making specific allegations, but criticized the French Market Corp. for rounding up a set of binders he had mailed to individual board members — which laid out in detail why he felt the bidding wasn't handled fairly — and sending them back to him.

Henry Julien, the French Market Corp.'s lawyer, sent Huger a letter Monday that said, "Communication is strictly prohibited between bidders and entities awarding contracts outside of the designated point of contact," adding, "Immediately cease and desist all efforts to contact board members."

Huger argued that the French Market Corp.'s move violated his constitutional rights.

"It's my right to send you a letter," Huger said. "You cannot tell me to not petition my government for redress. It's an outrage that these things were sent back to my office."