Sunday, November 26, 2006

Scott McClellan in Drag?

I have no idea what Ceeon Quiett looks like, oddly enough the mayor's spokeswoman never seems to appear on television, but her statements in the paper often read like Scott McClellan explaining a coalition member's decision to withdraw its troops from Iraq. Friday's Picayune gave a good example:
Though the report does not demand the return of federal money paid so far, the allegations related to Montgomery Watson may be delaying the release of almost $10 million already in hand at the state level for the contract and could hamper FEMA's approval of the remaining $14.8 million, city documents show.

Speaking generally about the reports, a spokeswoman for Mayor Ray Nagin said she does not view the federal audit reports as a rebuke but as a guide to how the city should handle future reimbursement requests.

"I don't see this as allegations," spokeswoman Ceeon Quiett said. "I see it as recommendations for support."

Whether you call them allegations or recommendations, they were, as the Picayune put it, "eye-popping:"
amid $39.2 million in overtime costs that the city asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse was an employee who earned $207 per hour after the storm; that employee normally was paid $23 per hour. Another worker earned overtime pay for 14 consecutive 24-hour days, the report says.
The fiscal report also claims that city officials used "illegal contracting methodology" in inking agreements worth more than $92 million with two national firms, the Shaw Group and Montgomery Watson Harza. It says the deal with Montgomery Watson tied profits to costs, an arrangement that violates federal rules because it provides no incentive to keep costs low.

The report also claims both contracts were awarded without competition, which boosted the risk of "unreasonable prices," and that the city failed to monitor contractor performance.

Obviously, one of the new guidelines is that if FEMA is paying for it, only Washington officials can award fat, no-bid contracts. Frankly, that should have come as no surprise. A more general guideline might be to expect FEMA to ask more questions than the city council and to be in a position to demand more answers than the local media.

After Friday's article, one might have expected Sunday's paper to contain a caustic, yet insight-filled James Gill column about the dispute between local leaders and FEMA officials. True to form, today's paper did contain a caustic James Gill column about a conflict between local leaders and FEMA officials.

Clearly the city is past due for an outside audit; that's far more important than a weakened inspector general answerable to the city council. Last we heard, the city council lost interest in an audit when informed that the price* would be higher than in the past. Prior to that, the mayor re-acted very indignantly to the suggestion of an audit during one of the debates. It might have been the expected reaction of somebody's who's fallen into the kinda smart guy (who's not as smart as thinks he is) trap, but there may well have been much more reason for the mayor's defensiveness. There were certainly obvious questions about the payroll since the layoffs were announced in October, 2005. But I've been over them before and the time sheets in city government are filled in by hand, i.e. easily faked. Still, an audit would look into more important matters than whether office staff or department heads (A no longer online 12/05/05 article implied that about NORD) who didn't return were kept on the payroll after the layoffs.

It's definitely time to get serious about a recall effort and, if possible, extend the state of emergency another month. I'm serious, on both counts. I wouldn't expect a new recall effort to do anything other than embolden the city council and perhaps make the heir apparent stop taking some votes for granted. Something needs to wake up the council.

It worried me when the mayor suddenly announced that the state of emergency would end on December 3. I can't help but suspect that contracts have been signed that can only be revoked in the event of an emergency, or that something similar is up. I'd feel a lot better if we had an IG (rubber stamp or not) going over all recently signed contracts before Dec. 3. Under normal circumstance, the city charter requires that a new budget be approved by the first week of December, I'm not sure whether a state of emergency affects that. If it does, that alone would be reason to extend it a month. With another month, some council member might actually ask why the mayor wants to lock the city into seven year garbage collection contracts when St. Bernard seems to have a six month contract.

*I still think Donze got spun on that one -- correct but irrelevant background info.

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