The city-parish's attempt to broker a new contract with a law firm to serve as its legal representative for municipal bond measures sparked a merry-go-round of debate and votes Wednesday night at the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council.
As a result, the council in two weeks will revisit a proposed contract between the city-parish and the Butler Snow law firm. On Wednesday, Metro Council members argued over terminology in the proposal that would allow the firm to serve as bond counsel for the city-parish exclusively and indefinitely, leading to three rounds of failed motions to push the item forward.
"There has to be an opportunity for others; it's just not right," Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis said before suggesting the exclusivity and indefinite clauses be struck from the proposed contract.
While other council members didn't have a problem with the exclusivity part, several shared Collins-Lewis' sentiments about allowing a law firm to serve as the city-parish's bond counsel indefinitely.
Local governments issue municipal bonds to raise the money they need to pay for many high-dollar, capital improvement projects. The city-parish sells the bonds to investors, or bond holders, who lend the bond issuer a fixed amount of money for a certain period of time in exchange for regularly scheduled interest payments, which municipalities pay through dedicated tax revenues.
Bond lawyers oversee all legal proceedings and negotiations related to bond issuance.
Officials from the city-parish Finance Department told the Metro Council there are three time-sensitive bonds up for re-bidding and the city-parish will issue bonds in the near future related to the nearly $1 billion MovEBR infrastructure and road improvement projects.
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The proposed contract was brought before the council because Richard Leibowitz, who has served as the city-parish's bond counsel for nearly 30 years, switched law firms and now works with Butler Snow, thus requiring a new contract.
"The very term exclusive means we're excluding or omitting others, something government should never be a proponent of," Councilwoman Chauna Banks said. "We're setting up one individual to have exclusivity to a financial windfall."
Councilwoman Barbara Freiberg suggested striking the word indefinite from the contract proposal and adding a clause limiting the contract to three years with two one-year renewal options, an idea Chief Administrative Officer Darryl Gissel said the mayor supports.
"I think that would be a good compromise," Freiberg said.
Bob Abbott, a lawyer with the Parish Attorney's Office, pointed out that a 30-day cancellation clause is written into the proposed contract so the Metro Council could cancel it if they wanted to bring in new blood.
But he stressed the need for the exclusivity clause with whoever gets selected as bond counsel, saying, "You don't really want two different lawyers overseeing the same bonds. There'd be the dispute over who's in charge."
Freiberg's proposal to add the three-year, one-year renewal options failed in a 5-3 vote, with Freiberg, Denise Amoroso, Dwight Hudson, Matt Watson and Trae Welch voting in favor and Collins-Lewis, Erika Green and Scott Wilson voting it down. Banks was present but did not vote; LaMont Cole and Chandler Loupe were not present for the vote; and Tara Wicker was absent from the meeting.
Collins-Lewis' motion to remove the exclusivity and indefinite clauses from the contract failed moments later in a 4-6 vote with Banks, Collins-Lewis, Cole and Green voting in favor and Freiberg, Amoroso, Hudson, Watson, Welch and Wilson voting in opposition. Loupe was also absent for this vote, and Wicker absent from the meeting.
"This isn't something we can play around with," Councilman Scott Wilson said after the two failed. "This affects our bond rating. The best thing for us to do as parish...is to approve the item as is."
But Wilson's motion also failed 6-3, with Banks again choosing not to vote on the matter. Loupe was absent for this vote as well.
The Metro Council then unanimously agreed to defer the item to its May 22 meeting.