Contract process targeted

Jefferson Parish officials are considering serious changes to how professional contracts are awarded in the parish, but those changes could be controversial because of the political shifts they entail.

Parish President John Young and Jefferson Parish Council Chairman Chris Roberts both introduced ordinances earlier this week that would tweak aspects of the parish’s “request for proposals” process that have been targeted by critics. Young wants the council to formally consider the price tag of proposals it receives when scoring them, just like officials did prior to 2010. Roberts wants to totally revamp who scores the proposals presented to the parish, while limiting the council’s discretion when choosing firms.

Currently, the parish solicits proposals for work, and those proposals are evaluated by five-member committees that are supposed to be composed of parish employees, architects and engineers. Those committees give each firm’s proposal a grade, and then those grades are forwarded to the parish council for a decision. The council has the discretion to pick any firm listed, and the proposal grades do not take into account the price for the work.

What Young is proposing is that price be included back into the grading process and listed separately from the technical grade. Not only does it make sense to consider price when spending public dollars, Young said, but if the parish wants to receive FEMA reimbursement after disasters, it has to prove it considered price when awarding contracts.

“The main thing is getting the best price for the best service,” Young said.

He noted that eliminating price from consideration eliminates any incentive companies have to offer the parish the best deal.

Councilman Paul Johnston said Young’s change makes sense but stressed that council members already consider price when making their choices.

However, the issue that could cause some serious fireworks is the proposed change in the amount of discretion the council has in awarding professional contracts. Young has said he supports the idea of the council being limited to only selecting the firm with the overall top score. That rule also has been supported by watchdog groups Citizens for Good Government and the Bureau of Governmental Research.

Roberts is proposing that the council be able to choose from the firms with the top three or five scores, depending on how many total proposals are submitted. In addition, Roberts wants serious changes to how the parish’s technical evaluation committees operate before he limits the council’s discretion.

He said employees who evaluate firms must be “classified” or governed by Civil Service rules and not appointed by Young. There should also be a member from the business community, he said.

Although the technical evaluation committees already are supposed to include independent architects and engineers, those volunteer positions can be hard to fill, and often three parish employees are the only ones serving on the board, Roberts noted. Roberts said he’s received complaints that Young’s appointees are exerting undue influence.

He also said firms have complained that at times their competitors in certain fields are giving them unfair scores out of spite. Roberts said he will not cede the council’s authority without assurances that it won’t just pass to Young. Consolidating power in Young’s hands doesn’t remove politics, it just shifts it to another location, he said.

“So basically the council takes a back seat and acquiesces to (Young),” said Roberts, who added that at times Young’s appointees have failed to follow basic rules when awarding scores. “I think we’re elected by the public to make decisions.”

However, Margie Seeman, a member of Citizens for Good Government, panned Roberts’ proposal because of the wide range of firms that will fall in the acceptable range. She said it won’t do much to stem abuses.

“Basically that’s only a little better than what we’re doing now,” said Seeman, whose group has documented hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to council members from firms who receive parish contracts. “As long as the council has discretion about choosing the winners of these contracts, the contractors, we feel like, feel obligated to contribute to their campaigns.”

Roberts said he believes his proposal will be accepted with some possible tweaking, which he is open to considering. Johnston said he would need to see the exact details of Roberts’ plan before he makes a decision.

He added the council should only deviate from selecting the top firm if there is a small difference between the scores, and one firm appears to be dominating parish business.