Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Great Mayor Before Katrina

A pre-Katrina Stephanie Grace column

Sure, we’re watching; Nagin asked for it
Times-Picayune, The (New Orleans, LA) - Thursday, May 12, 2005
Author: Stephanie Grace

"Contracts!" Mayor Ray Nagin, said, his voice filled with carefully scripted indignation.

Why is the media so fixated on examining the contracts that Nagin has let during his first three years in office, the mayor demanded during his Monday night State of the City address?

Here’s one answer: Because he asked for it.

He asked for it by running for mayor in the first place, knowing full well that his operations would be subject to public scrutiny. He knows, too, that citizens who’ve been forced to pony up for too many abuses in the past are keeping a close eye.

He asked for it when he declared himself a reformer, promising in his 2002 inaugural address to oversee a government that is "transparent and accountable," in which "contracts are awarded based on what you can do, not who you know."

And he practically begged for it when he signed on to a controversial campaign-season plan offered by the non-profit Bureau of Governmental Research. That plan was aimed at taking the politics and patronage out of professional service contracting by creating independent selection committees to evaluate bids. Nagin later changed his commitment, offering a revised plan that put the mayor back into the process, allowing him to select contractors from an independent committee’s pre-screened list.

Three years later, he still has not enacted either alternative.

But still, any comprehensive look at the subject has to acknowledge that Nagin has done better than the preceding administration.

He hasn’t entered into any deals that would tie future mayors’ hands or seem likely to attract the scrutiny of the feds, such as former mayor Marc Morial’s stinker of an energy savings contract with Johnson Controls, which was slated to run 20 years at a cost of $81 million.

His relatives haven’t been able to cash in on city deals, although his brother-in-law tried to nose his way into Morial uncle Glenn Haydel’s lucrative management arrangement at the Regional Transit Authority. That contract is also under federal investigation. In fact, Nagin himself put a quick stop to the brother-in-law’s involvement.

Airport legal fees, once a rich pot of patronage for Morial’s inner circle, are down by half. And another sweetheart Morial-era deal, a property tax collection contract with Linebarger Goggan Blair Sampson, has been rebid under terms more favorable to the city.

For all that, Nagin deserves a round of applause.

But that doesn’t mean contracting has become a non-issue.

As a businessman politician who promised to watch the bottom line, Nagin has cut some deals that are clearly problematic.

A no-bid contract for new trash cans, with a company that once acknowledged ties to Chief Administrative Officer Charles Rice’s brother, carried worse terms than similar deals in other cities. The administration all but admitted as much when it belatedly decided to ask for new proposals to sell ad space on the trash cans’ sides.

The city also chose the third-ranked bidder, the politically connected Community Based Corrections , to create a home monitoring program for municipal offenders, even though the group has no experience in the field.

And Nagin hasn’t attempted to improve the wasteful insurance arrangement he inherited, a cumbersome process that employs large committees of brokers, each of whom gets a cut of city business.

And then there’s that never-enacted BGR pledge.

During Monday’s address, Nagin finally announced how he plans to reform professional service contracting. He said he’d include a nominee from either the Urban League or the Chamber of Commerce in each screening committee, along with two staff members. That’s far short of what he promised back during his first campaign.

The mayor may have his reasons. Some of his aides have long complained that agreeing to BGR’s terms would make the mayor less accountable by taking key decisions out of his hands. But he’s never come out and argued the point.

He’s apparently too busy feeling victimized for being held to the high standards that he set for himself.

Comments:
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Those garbage cans were later referred to by the Mayor as a "Charles Rice special"
 
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