Back in 1995, New Orleans voters demanded that City Hall establish an Ethics Review Board and the Office of Inspector General (OIG) by putting provisions for both in the City Charter. It has taken 11 years and a catastrophic hurricane to get us to this point, but the City Council finally appears poised to establish the OIG and give it appropriate levels of authority to ferret out waste, inefficiency and corruption in city government. Five council members have signed on as co-authors of a proposed OIG ordinance, which may be considered at the council's Oct. 19 meeting. We urge its adoption -- with one addition that we believe will strengthen it.
First, we congratulate City Councilwoman Shelley Midura of District A for making this issue a priority and for keeping it before the council. Her ordinance goes a long way toward fulfilling the promise that voters anticipated when they amended the City Charter in 1995. A year later, council members passed a city code of ethics for municipal employees and contractors, created the ethics board and approved appointees nominated by then-Mayor Marc Morial. Unfortunately, the board proved to be a sham. The panel never met, and the terms of its members expired in 2003. Midura, who chairs the current council's Governmental Affairs Committee, promises to breathe new life into the ethics board in tandem with the drive to create the OIG. We wholeheartedly endorse that idea.
Among the strengths of the current proposal is that the inspector general will be tied to and appointed by the Ethics Review Board, thereby providing some independent oversight of the investigative and auditing office -- but hopefully not any political interference. The proposed ordinance sets high standards for anyone seeking the job of inspector general. "Qualified" applicants must have at least 10 years experience in any one of, or in some combination of, the following fields:
• as federal law enforcement officer;
• as a state or federal judge;
• as a licensed attorney with expertise in areas of audit and investigation of fraud, mismanagement, waste, corruption and abuse of power;
• as a senior-level auditor or comptroller; or
• as a supervisor in an investigative public agency similar to that of the OIG.
In addition, "highly qualified" candidates must have managed and completed complex investigations involving allegations of fraud, theft, public corruption, deception and conspiracy; demonstrated the ability to work with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies and the judiciary; or hold an advanced degree in law, accounting, public administration "or other relevant field." Moreover, current or former elected officials or employees of city government could not be appointed inspector general within five years of holding office or working for City Hall. Clearly, the intent of the Midura proposal is to set the bar very high -- and to prevent political hacks from winning the post.
The inspector general would be appointed by the Ethics Review Board, which is required to conduct a "nationwide search," and the appointee would serve a six-year term that may be renewed. The IG could be removed only "for cause" and only by a two-thirds vote of the Ethics Review Board. The City Council could ask the ethics panel to consider disciplinary action against the inspector general -- and the council could act on its own, by a two-thirds vote -- to sanction or remove the IG if the ethics board fails to convene within 30 days of the council's request. The council also could abolish the OIG by a two-thirds vote after a public hearing.
Generally, the local proposal tracks the OIG office in Miami-Dade County, Fla., which is considered a national model. One key similarity is the source of funding for the local OIG. Midura's proposal would require that parties contracting with City Hall or city commissions for goods or services in excess of $10,000 must deposit 0.25 percent (one quarter of 1 percent) of the contract's value into the OIG Operating Fund. The office also may seek and accept private donations and public grants. This funding mechanism, independent of mayoral or council review, would guarantee sufficient funds to operate a viable investigative and auditing agency.
Another important attribute of the OIG will be its ability to sit in on meetings with potential city contractors. The proposed ordinance requires all city agencies to notify the OIG of any meetings with bidders, thereby putting the OIG on the ground floor of municipal contracts. This alone should discourage waste and inefficiency. Of equal importance is the requirement that all city employees and officials -- including the mayor and council members -- must cooperate fully with the OIG and give it full access to all records.
There's a lot to like about Midura's proposal. It couldn't come at a better time -- just as billions in federal aid are about to pour into the city. The only thing we would add to the mix is subpoena power for the OIG. That is the one glaring difference between Midura's proposal and the OIG in Miami-Dade. Subpoena power is a major investigative tool, but it may require another charter change in New Orleans. If so, we hope council members will pursue that change quickly. Without subpoena power, the OIG could become a toothless tiger. We urge council members to pass the OIG ordinance on Oct. 19 and to propose any changes needed to give the office subpoena power.