GONZALES -- The Ascension Parish Council has modified the membership of two key administrative panels that review and recommend firms seeking engineering and other professional contracts with parish government.
The changes include pulling the vacant chief administrative officer position out of the process and creating the option of filling a spot previously reserved for outside experts with inhouse experts.
The effect could result in reducing the representation of outside experts on the five-member panels by one spot each and leaving appointment of the two outside experts left on the engineering panel to state agencies.
On the panel that handles non-engineering professional services, the changes also hold out the possibility of having every reviewer employed by the parish administration.
Parish President Tommy Martinez and the Parish Council created the review panels in 2008, arguing they were a way to create a more objective selection process and eliminate divisive political battles over engineering contracts that plagued councils of prior years.
The selection committees — one for engineering and another for other kinds of professional contracts — review firms, score them and rank them in order.
In most cases, the council is given the top three firms from which to pick usually one winner. The council does not often deviate.
But the council is not bound to those top three unless the contract is tied to state or federal funding. The panels are used for contracts with values of $50,000 or more, which require council approval.
On Sept. 6 in Donaldsonville, the council backed the panel revamp on a 10-0 vote. Council Chairman Chris Loar does not vote, as chairman, unless to break a tie.
Before the vote, Councilwoman Teri Casso asked Martinez why the changes were deemed necessary.
Martinez explained that the administration has had a hard time filling some of the outside expert spots and had administration personnel reviewing contracts that they did not feel they had the expertise to score.
On the engineering review panel, provisions that were eliminated included having a professor with the LSU or Southern University schools of engineering and an expert with the American Society of Engineers to fill spots.
“Basically, we’ve had a hard time getting someone from LSU or Southern to come to any meeting. It’s been a tough deal,” Martinez said, adding there are similar problems with the society.
The society spot on the engineering review panel has been replaced with the parish’s chief engineer, Ben Laurie.
Separately, a spot that had been reserved for a parish staff engineer has been replaced with an expert who may be a parish employee.
The university professor position has been replaced with an expert in engineering or related technical field who is not a parish employee.
The engineering committee also broadens a spot once reserved for a Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development engineer also to include those from any applicable state agency.
Martinez told Casso that with contracts involving parish funding, the council has the power to pick any of the qualified firms if it is not satisfied with panel recommendations.
“And, the bottom line is we want people that know what they’re doing, and we want to make sure that we don’t hire an engineer for sewer that just does roads, you know, because of political favoritism,” he said.
Casso asked Martinez who would appoint the outside expert on the engineering review panel and the expert who could be a parish employee.
Though not stated in the ordinance, Martinez told Casso that the outside expert would be chosen by a state agency with related expertise.
The proposed changes also prompted Councilman Daniel Satterlee to ask about the unfilled chief administrative officer position.
The panel changes add the parish president’s chief executive assistant to each review committee.
On the panel that handles non-engineering matters, the chief executive assistant or the parish president’s designee replaces the CAO. Under the changes, there is also at least an opportunity to appoint a second chief assistant to that panel.
The CAO position has remained vacant since Cedric Grant left in 2010 to join the administration of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
Satterlee noted the chief executive assistants do not need council approval as the CAO does.
He asked Martinez if he would be filling the CAO position. Martinez said he has two capable executive assistants. They are Ken Dawson and Thomas “Moose” Pearce.
“And one may emerge and at some point become chief administrative officer,” Martinez said.