Despite protests from some members, a New Orleans City Council committee agreed Wednesday to renew the lucrative contracts for the consultants who have for decades advised the council on its regulation of Entergy.
The council’s Utility Committee approved 2018 contracts totaling up to $5.67 million for the international law firm Dentons US, the Legends Consulting Group of Denver and the local law firm of Wilkerson and Associates. The contracts are for the same amounts as this year.
The committee also agreed to pay Dentons and Legends an extra $900,000 for unexpected work the companies said they had to do this year.
All five committee members signed off on the renewals, even though Councilwomen Stacy Head and Susan Guidry said — as they have before — that competent in-house staff could be doing the same work as the consultants for less money.
Head also said the consultants routinely bill for more work over the course of a year than the council budgets for. She was the lone council member to oppose paying Dentons and Legends the extra cash for work done in 2017.
“We keep upping the cost of our advisers,” Head said. “They don’t stick with the budget that we gave them, and we haven’t, I don’t believe, really done any work to bring any more of our work in-house.”
In response, Councilmen Jared Brossett and Jason Williams noted several issues the advisers worked on that were not expected when the firms’ 2017 contracts were approved last year, including a review of Entergy’s July revision to its proposal for a new power plant in New Orleans East.
“The advisers have been hard at work for months, even while being not properly paid on time,” Brossett said. “And so it’s important that we continue to move forward, (since) they have always produced savings for the ratepayers.”
Wednesday’s genteel disagreement was a far cry from the rancorous dispute that Williams, the Utility Committee chairman, and Head engaged in last year over the issue, when Head accused Williams and other council members of rigging the 2017 contract selections in the longtime consultants’ favor.
Last year was the first time the profitable legal and technical work had gone out for bid in five years, and Dentons, Legends and Wilkerson scored the highest scores of the 10 firms that sought the job.
The acrimony between Head and Williams persisted even after the council approved the 2017 contracts. It came to a head in April, when Head decried her colleagues for working with Dentons, Legends and Wilkerson to craft the billing guidelines that would govern those firms’ work.
Head called that akin to the “fox drafting the security plan for the henhouse.” She also sent an explosive letter to the Uptown Messenger, in which she said the cost of the contracts was being downplayed so that “politicians and their donors get rich.”
The council passes on the consultants' bills to Entergy, which pays them with the revenue it gets from customers.
Williams, in turn, criticized Head for saying, in an original version of that letter, that she had consulted with Entergy on the cost of the advisers’ work, a move he said was “illegal and unethical.” Head said later that she had never colluded with Entergy on the matter and her political consultant had included that language by mistake.
But the council’s two at-large members remained calm Wednesday, even as they stood on opposite sides of the debate over the extra 2017 payments.
Head noted her past opposition to the costs of the contracts and asked whether the council should budget even more for the firms, if it expects to end up paying them more anyway.
Williams said he imagined that the advisers’ heaviest workload next year will be related to the council’s early spring vote on Entergy’s controversial proposal for a new power plant, and he noted that the firms' workload can change, depending on what matters pop up.
“I would hate to overinflate a budget just because we are in a particularly robust period of work right now,” he said.
Guidry, though she agreed with Head in principle, said she would not vote against paying the consultants for work they already performed. But she also said she saw "some real issues" this year when she looked at a few months of bills from the consultants.
“I think they do a really great job, but I think that with time, things have gotten a little too comfortable, and I think that attorneys at that level shouldn’t be billing for reviewing (the same issues), over and over again,” she said.
Williams countered that some adjustments were made to the final 2017 bills, based on Guidry’s and his suggestions.
The full council is expected to ratify the committee’s actions Thursday.