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Let the Sunshine In

OPINION: If we're to ensure aboveboard standards on any municipal professional services contracts, the public must be allowed access into the process.

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Residents and members of the New Orleans City Council recently learned about a new contract awarded by Mayor Ray Nagin to renovate the Municipal Auditorium. Eventually, the issue will come before the council for a vote in the form of a lease agreement. At this point, I have not formally taken a position on the project, but am certainly intrigued by the possibility of generating new economic development through our own local creative industries. Historically, New Orleans has been a great cultural hub for music, arts and food, yet we haven't fully translated that cultural affluence to broader economic benefits.

  However, the concerns being expressed by the community and most recently the New Orleans Inspector General, involve not the proposal's concept, but rather the procedure for awarding this and other similar professional service contracts. Putting aside the substance of the Municipal Auditorium project, some have already criticized the mayor's actions by virtue of the perception that the contractual Request for Proposal and ensuing award were made without the advantage of citizen input. Further, questions have been raised as to the receipt of only one bid, the basis of the award and the lack of notice provided to the inspector general — as required by law — to review all proposals, submissions and subsequent procurement.

  A few months ago, I authored legislation — passed by the council but vetoed by the mayor — which was designed to guarantee public access to the meetings and documents involved in the city's process for professional services contract procurement. The goal of that legislation was to instill public confidence that all proposals receive careful review by opening up the process for all to see.

  Contrary to widely circulated myth, this legislation would not have in any way diminished the mayor's authority in awarding contracts; rather, it was simply about putting sunshine into the process. After the veto, the city process went from bad to worse as even the previous selection panels were abolished by executive order. Today, no one outside of senior members of the administration have input into the RFP process before contracts are awarded.

  Isn't it time for public servants, present and future, to agree public access to the process for awarding municipal contracts is a basic right for those whose money is being spent? One must never forget that the funding source for such public contracts, and in fact the entire city general fund, is taxpayer money and those of us privileged to serve publicly are mere stewards of these funds. Public review can quell accusations of inequity and even help our local businesses have the opportunity to secure a higher percentage of recovery project contracts.

  Improvements to the current way of conducting city business should have happened several months ago. I hope they will be the first order of business come May. But in an effort to assist in moving this reform forward, an ordinance will soon be introduced which, if approved by the council, will give this good government issue to the voters in a fall referendum. The ordinance proposes amending two sections of the Home Rule Charter as it relates to the process of awarding professional services contracts and public disclosure of all subcontracts, something not currently done. To be clear, this ordinance will not dictate how the mayor awards contracts — it simply mandates that whatever practice exists is open.

  The Municipal Auditorium is a downtown treasure ripe for development and return to commerce. Ultimately, though, it is even more important that when the final decision is reached, the citizenry can be confident contracts on this and other public projects are awarded through open and trusted procedures. That will indeed be a big step forward for our city.

Arnie Fielkow is president of the New Orleans City Council.

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