Minority businesses say proposed Jefferson Parish contracting rules would work against them

Jefferson Parish’s push to revamp how it awards professional contracts through its request-for-proposals process has received an unexpected challenge from opponents who say one proposed change could make it harder for minorities to obtain parish contracts.

Parish Council members were scheduled to consider amending the parish’s guidelines for awarding professional contracts Wednesday, but that item was deferred to the council’s March 13 meeting. No reason was given for the deferral.

One of the key changes in the proposed ordinance is a requirement that the council only award work to those three or five companies that receive the highest scores from a committee that evaluates contracts.

But even before the council made the decision to defer the ordinance, several groups spoke against the measure, which some government watchdogs have labeled a partial correction of some of the long-standing issues in the parish’s contracting process.

Representatives from groups representing minority contractors and minority businesses said the new rules would effectively bar minority business from receiving parish contracts. Their concerns stemmed from the fact that contractors receive higher scores from the evaluation committees if they have previously done work with Jefferson Parish. That skews the process towards larger, established companies that have long-standing relationships with the parish, argued Ernest Stallworth, a representative from the Alliance of Minority Contractors.

Jefferson Parish must figure out a way to protect the interests of minority and small businesses, said Patricia Williams-Smith, the president of the New Orleans Regional Black Chamber of Commerce. She said the group is willing to work with parish officials to develop new rules that don’t hurt minority businesses but said the current proposal does not work.

“Ladies and gentlemen this is not good government,” Williams said.

Councilman Mark Spears said he’s concerned that by stripping council members of the power to select any firm they desire for contracts, it will makes it impossible for smaller businesses to break into the parish. Spears, whose district is majority black, noted only 1 percent of all parish contracts are awarded to minority and small businesses.

“You would effectively say that these firms need not apply to Jefferson Parish,” Spears said. “If it’s in my district I would like the power to choose… This would effectively take that power away from the district council member.”

He later noted that often he’ll hear from companies about projects in his district before he’s aware that they are happening, which means someone in the parish administration is tipping off firms with which they are familiar. That’s a serious disadvantage for a new company trying to get started, he said.

Changes in how the parish awards contracts have long been sought by government watchdogs who say that the current process promotes corruption and conflicts of interest. Citizens for Good Government, a local advocacy group, has been requesting for years that the council require that only the firm with the highest score be selected for contracts.

The Bureau of Governmental Research has said allowing the council to have “unfettered discretion” creates the risk that contracts will be awarded based on personal relationships rather than qualifications. It notes that at times 20 percent of parish contracts are awarded through the request for proposals process.

The new ordinance, which was pushed by Councilman Chris Roberts but formally introduced by all council members, would limit the council’s discretion but not remove it completely. Council members would have to choose from the top three or five high-scoring contractors, depending on the total number of proposals received, and consider price when awarding contracts. The ordinance also would require the disclosure of campaign contributions from all subcontractors on a project, and remove political appointees from the evaluation committees. Roberts has said that last change will limit political influence in the process.

But in a recent report, BGR argued that the ordinance would still allow too much discretion for the council, and it questioned whether removing political appointees would truly eliminate politics from the process. Betty Purcell, a member of Citizens for Good Government, said the proposed ordinance doesn’t go far enough.

“This is unacceptable to us,” she said.

Roberts said the new argument is a compelling one that he hadn’t considered before.

“It’s raising a good point; it’s something that’s going to have to be taken into consideration,” he said.