Do you think Nagin is right or should it be public knowledge?

by Michelle Krupa, The Times-Picayune
Thursday February 19, 2009, 7:20 AM

JENNIFER ZDON / THE TIMES-PICAYUNE

"I've got one year left in my term," said Nagin. "I'm going to keep fighting until the day I get out of office."Saying he has been a "good steward" of public dollars and has run City Hall in a transparent fashion, Mayor Ray Nagin on Wednesday defended his proposal to disband committees that rank would-be city vendors rather than comply with a unanimously approved ordinance requiring the panels to meet in public.

Speaking at what was likely to be the only formal debate on his pending executive order, Nagin reiterated his position that the council ordinance, which he vetoed last week, violates a City Charter provision giving the mayor sole authority to award contracts for legal, architectural, engineering and other professional work.

Should the council overturn the veto at its meeting today, the mayor said, the city could face a sticky legal challenge.

"We have a lot of lawyers in this town, " Nagin said. "The last thing we need is for someone to file an injunction that says, 'You have a conflicting ordinance with an ordinance in the City Charter. Therefore all your recovery projects (must) stop.' "

Several speakers disagreed, arguing that the mayor's order would make a process that already occurs mostly behind closed doors even more opaque. Under the charter, the order becomes law seven days after the hearing.

Bob Brown, managing director of the Business Council of New Orleans & the River Region, challenged the administration's claim that the recovery would suffer if it had to hold a public meeting for each of hundreds of professional service contracts awarded annually.

"We heard that there can be inconvenience, slowdown, if the process is open to public observation, and that may be true, " Brown said. "But I believe that that is an aggravation worth suffering if it gives the public the chance to see what is going on."

Brown read aloud a pledge Nagin made during his 2002 mayoral campaign to improve the city's contracting process by creating expert review panels that would have to comply with the state's open meetings law.

Instead, Nagin in June 2005 called for a private citizen to join two city staffers in evaluating proposals for professional service contracts larger than $150,000 and making a recommendation to the mayor. Under the new proposed order, the mayor would make the call with advice from only his top aide and city attorney or recovery czar Ed Blakely.

Neither the council's law nor the mayor's order applies to contracts that under state law must be awarded to the lowest bidder.

In impassioned remarks that drew raucous applause, Lower 9th Ward activist Vanessa Gueringer said the mayor has fallen short of his campaign vows.

"You ran four years ago on a platform of accountability, transparency and fairness, " she said, "and none of that has happened thus far."

From Nagin's perspective

Amid the attacks, several speakers stepped up to defend Nagin's position.

Mark Lewis, president of the Louisiana Technology Council, said the mayor should do everything in his power to make sure recovery does not stall. Acknowledging that the executive order could discourage some companies from competing for city work, Lewis pushed Nagin to encourage as many qualified firms as possible to submit proposals.

Lewis said he hopes that when Nagin makes "a selection of a vendor, that you inform the public as to why you made that decision."

Also in the mayor's corner was his acting director of intergovernmental affairs, Julie Schwam Harris. Citing her experience as a campaign operative and a city bureaucrat, Schwam Harris said Nagin has worked to balance political ideals with practical realities.

"Often, when you get in office, . . . you realize that things that are so easy to promise, they don't work the way they intended, " she said. "The goals of transparency and the goals of accountable government are very important, and I think people need to know they're important to this administration."

Kelly Longwell, a lawyer with the Coates Rose firm who has served on two panels reviewing legal contracts, said holding meetings in public could be "detrimental."

"There is some very sensitive financial information included in the proposals, and we have very candid conversations about the people that are participating, " she said. "I'm not sure you could have that kind of dialogue in a public forum."

But Longwell also said the process would suffer without an expert from outside City Hall. "If they lose a community representative, they're losing the transparency -- an outsider sitting in to keep everybody honest, " she said.

Holding charter vote

Nagin on Wednesday repeated his position that the council's ordinance violates the separation of powers. If the council wants contract panels' meetings to be public, voters must amend the charter to require it, he said.

"It's not about Ray Nagin; it's about the office of mayor, " he said, adding that any charter change vote should be held during a popular citywide election, not slipped onto a ballot of little interest.

Councilwoman Shelley Midura said she plans to work with her council colleagues for "comprehensive reform" of all city procurement processes, including a ballot initiative to require contract committees to meet in public. The matter could land before voters in tandem with mayoral and council elections early next year, she said.

Debate about the contracting process unfolded during a meeting that, according to several council members and aides, initially was advertised as a platform for the administration to lay out a plan to comply with city laws related to take-home cars.

A notice that a legally mandated hearing on Nagin's proposed executive order also would be held during the session was sent to reporters early Tuesday afternoon, a day after the order was published in the classified section of The Times-Picayune -- but not mentioned by Nagin's press office.

The council members and staff said they didn't receive notice of the public hearing until late Tuesday or early Wednesday. While an agenda distributed at the meeting clearly described the topics related to take-home cars, it mentioned the contracting issue only as "Executive Order CRN 09-01."