The Jefferson Parish Council voted unanimously Wednesday to rein in its essentially unlimited discretion in awarding professional contracts. The action followed years of criticism that its contracting process could lead to the best-connected, rather than the most qualified, contractors getting the job.
The so-called “Margie Seeman Ordinance,” named after an activist who spent years criticizing the council’s contracting procedures before her death earlier this year, requires the council to hew relatively closely to the recommendations of committees that evaluate proposals by firms seeking to provide services to the parish.
The state’s public bid law requires many contracts to be awarded strictly on price, after the companies vying for the job submit sealed bids. Governments, however, can also issue requests for proposals for projects and services in which other factors, such as the qualifications of the company or the way they would handle the job, come into play.
Although the ordinance approved Wednesday contains provisions that still will allow the council to bypass the best-scoring proposal, advocates for contract reform said it represented a step in the right direction.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s better,” said Margaret Baird, Seeman’s twin sister. The two women co-founded Citizens for Good Government in 2009 and became a familiar sight at council meetings, where they would publicly discuss the amount of campaign contributions given by each firm to be awarded a contract and would criticize council members when lower-ranked firms won out over those deemed more qualified.
Under the old council rules, the parish would send out a request for proposals for services it needed, and an evaluation committee then would score the responses on a variety of factors. However, the council was free to ignore those recommendations and award the contract to whichever firm it wished. It was not uncommon for members to choose a firm that did not get the top recommendation from the committee.
The new rules restrict that practice, requiring the council to choose the top-ranked firm in most cases. The only exception will be if there was less than a 10 percent difference in the prices and a 5 percent difference in the total scores of the top two firms, in which case the runner-up can be selected.
The rules are designed to make sure the firms that are best suited for the job are the ones that get selected, Councilman Chris Roberts, who sponsored the ordinance, said earlier this month.
“It ensures that whoever is most qualified is the one being considered. It doesn’t totally remove the discretion, but nevertheless you’re recruiting your top players,” Roberts said.
Baird said she had been skeptical of allowing council members to select a firm that isn’t the highest-ranked, but she was mollified after discussions with parish officials. Those officials told her that the provision was necessary to correct cases where a firm ranks highest because a single member of the evaluation committee gave it a score that was dramatically different from the other members’ scores, she said.
The measure has been sitting on the council’s agenda for months as council members considered changes to it. Several of those changes, including tweaks to the provision giving the council leeway in close contests, came after the Bureau of Governmental Research suggested them in a letter earlier this summer. The nonpartisan policy group has been a leading critic of Jefferson Parish’s contracting process.
Wednesday’s council meeting showed that Citizens for Good Government is not ready to stop pushing for changes. At the end of the meeting, Baird urged the council to change its procedures for routine engineering contracts, which now allow council members to simply pick from a list of qualified firms for projects that cost less than $300,000 without seeking competitive bids. Baird called on the council to lower that threshold to $150,000. She also urged the council to reduce the number of contracts that are not awarded based solely on price as much as possible.
The council took no action on her suggestions.
In a related matter, the council took action aimed at blunting criticism by the parish Inspector General’s Office over its selection of a contractor to manage the parish’s home elevation program.
Earlier this month, the council selected Solutient to run the $1.7 million program, despite concerns raised by Inspector General David McClintock that doing so would violate a state law requiring companies selected to perform construction work to have a contractor’s license. The parish’s request for proposals for the project also listed a license as one of its requirements.
Solutient is not licensed with the state board that oversees those licenses.
On Wednesday, the council unanimously amended the contract to specify that Solutient will provide program management services and oversee subcontractors that will perform the actual work. Those firms are licensed, officials have said.
Editor’s note: This story was altered Aug. 28 to reflect that the new ordinance does not bar political appointees from serving on evaluation committees.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.