Mayor Mitch Landrieu is pushing the City Council to enshrine some of his contracting practices in the city’s charter, making them binding for future mayors.
The council on Thursday is expected to consider the administration’s request to put an amendment to the Home Rule Charter on the November ballot.
The amendment would require both that the city establish and maintain a program for minority- and women-owned businesses and that a committee be involved in the competitive selection process for professional service contracts not covered by state public bid laws. It would also shift the authority to sign off on such contracts on the city’s behalf from the director of finance to the chief administrative officer.
However, the proposed charter change would give the mayor the freedom to stray from the new guidelines when he feels there’s reason to do so.
The proposed amendment says the mayor “may authorize, by executive order, emergencies and exceptions to such competitive selection process in the best interest of the city.” That provision has drawn criticism from two influential watchdog organizations.
The city’s competitive selection process is currently established in an executive order created by the mayor in 2010 that requires a selection committee made up of individuals from “within local government with relevant subject matter expertise” to evaluate proposals and make selections in meetings that are open to the public.
The proposed amendment would enshrine that language in the charter but with the provision that the mayor could authorize exceptions.
The entire amendment is intended to “reshape the way New Orleans does business,” Suchitra Satpathi, the mayor’s aide for legislative affairs, told the City Council’s Economic Development Committee on Tuesday.
“We want to send a strong signal that we are serious about equity and shared prosperity,” Satpathi said.
The proposal met with general approval Tuesday from the committee, and it is due to be considered by the full council on Thursday. However, the committee could not make a formal recommendation because only two of its five members, Chairman James Gray and Councilman Jared Brossett, were present. Three are needed for a vote.
Gray said the full council must act on the proposal this week so that, if approved, it can be considered at the October meeting of the Louisiana State Bond Commission in time to make it onto the Nov. 4 ballot. If the charter change passes in November, it would go into effect on Jan. 1.
Gray said he didn’t expect the measure to encounter opposition from other council members.
The charter change would, in very broad terms, bind future administrations to the changes in contracting practices Landrieu has put in place through executive orders and ordinance revisions during his administration.
Last year, for instance, the administration and the council revised a city ordinance to require that companies comply with City Hall’s goal of 35 percent participation by disadvantaged business enterprises on publicly financed projects and public projects that receive public funding or incentives. Vendors risk having their contracts terminated or payments withheld if they don’t meet the 35 percent goal.
The proposed charter amendment does not go so far as to include a specific percentage requirement for DBEs. But it does says the city must “establish and maintain” a program to encourage disadvantaged business participation.
That proposed change, and another one giving the CAO the power to sign contracts on behalf of the city instead of the finance director, ran into no opposition Tuesday.
But the Bureau of Governmental Research and the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region jointly requested that the other two proposed charter changes be revised.
They said giving the mayor the authority to grant exceptions to the new rules whenever he or she believes it is “in the best interest of the city” is far too broad. They said the language should be revised to specify the situations in which a mayor would be allowed to exercise that right.
BGR President Janet Howard said her organization agrees that the mayor should have some flexibility in emergency situations but that the proposed language “would practically invite future mayors to grant exceptions.”
The Business Council and BGR also recommended that the mayor be required either to accept a selection committee’s recommendation or else terminate the specific procurement involved and explain that decision in writing.
“The charter amendment before you falls short of implementing the kind of real reform we think is needed in the charter,” Howard said. “Amending the charter is a difficult, infrequent process. So it’s important to get it right.”
However, Gray said he is comfortable with the proposed revisions as written and does not anticipate any changes before Thursday’s council meeting.
He said the charter is purposely broad and should remain that way.
“Laws that become part of your constitution give general principles. You cannot and you normally do not try to cover every little theoretical possibility. The charter is a general document that sets out policy and purpose, and you normally leave other mechanisms to deal with the small details,” Gray said. “I’m comfortable with the language we have.”