Friday, November 22, 2013

Kenner Councilwoman DeFranchesch Defends Mayor Yenni’s No-Bid Contracts

At the last Kenner City Council meeting, the Council approved over $600,000 in non-emergency, no-bid  professional services contracts at the request of Mayor Mike Yenni.

The two companies that received the contracts, Digital Imaging & Engineering and Harman Engineering, both contributed the maximum amount allowed by law to Mayor Yenni’s campaign, and also contributed to each of the 7 Kenner City Councilmen including almost $5,000 to Councilwoman DeFranchesch’s campaign account.

Last year, the Kenner City Council unanimously approved allowing Kenner voters to vote on a charter change which would allow council oversight and public comment on all no-bid professional services contracts valued at over $100,000. The vote was approved by a 70%-30% margin.

The contributions to Mayor Yenni and the council were not disclosed at the council meeting and none of the councilmen in attendance (Councilman Kent Denapolis was not present at the meeting and Councilwoman Jeannie Black walked out of the council chambers during one of the votes) abstained from votes that directly benefited the companies that contributed money to their campaigns.

And, despite the charter change, except for a couple of questions from District 2 Councilman Joe Stagni regarding the selection process, there was no discussion from the council regarding the qualifications of the winning bidders, the price involved in the contracts, or the fact that both contracts were given to two different companies for work at the same location.

In addition, Fox 8 and have done an excellent job discussing issues with Jefferson Parish contractors who contribute Millions of dollars to the campaigns of Parish councilmen and, in return, receive lucrative no-bid professional services contract.

In May of 2012, the Bureau of Governmental Research issued a scathing report regarding Jefferson Parish’s contract selection process.

Until the Fall of 2011, price was considered in the Parish’s contract evaluation process. However, District councilmen were still given wide latitude to select any vendor they wished regardless of the score given to the contractor by the Evaluation Committee.

While agreeing that price should not be the only consideration, BGR stated that price should be a factor.

“Price is not necessarily the most important factor for selecting services that depend on technical or specialized skills. But the inclusion of non-price considerations results in a more subjective process – and the potential for favoritism, waste and abuse.”  

Jefferson Parish President John Young agreed.

In a article, Young said:

“I asked the Parish Attorney to draft an ordinance placing price back in the equation. Though price shouldn’t be the sole determining factor, it should be a factor to be considered.”

Young also said that, when the Parish was recommending a vendor that was not the lowest-priced vendor, his staff would include a letter stating why the lowest-bidder was not selected.

“I requested my people to put that in writing in the resolution (to explain) why we didn’t go with the low-bid process.”

“In public bids, the contract must be given to the lowest responsible bidder. But when hiring professionals, like engineers and attorneys, the council can select anybody regardless of price or the rankings by evaluating committees.”

The Editorial Board also endorsed another recommendation from BGR: including price as a factor in the selection process.

“The parish also should include cost as part of its evaluation process, and cost should also be an important factor in selecting the firms. As of now, price is not required to be a factor at all, meaning taxpayers are often paying more than they should for services. Indeed, almost every professional contract that local governments have recently opened for competition has led to savings.”

At last night’s Kenner City Council meeting, Councilwoman DeFranchesch took to the microphone to defend Mayor Yenni and the council’s decision to award the two non-emergency, no-bid professional services contracts.

Citing state law and the Federal Brooks Act, DeFranchesch, reading from a prepared statement despite the fact that it was on the council agenda as a “discussion” item, said that she wanted to clear up “confusion regarding whether these contracts should be put out for bid.”

Despite it being a "discussion" item, there was no discussion from any council member expect for DeFranchesch. 

The state law, which has been amended several times since its introduction in 2006 (most recently in 2012 to allow the Port of New Orleans to include price in their professional service contract evaluations), states:

“It is the policy of the state of Louisiana, its political subdivisions, and agencies to select providers of design professional services on the basis of competence and qualifications for a fair and reasonable price. Neither the state nor any of its political subdivisions or agencies may select providers of design services wherein price or price-related information is a factor in the selection.”

And that makes perfect sense.

You don’t always want the lowest-priced vendor. However, you do want the most qualified vendor that you can afford and who will provide the best value for your constituents.

The Brooks Act cited by Councilwoman DeFranchesch, is a law specifically related to Federal contracts and has no applicability to local bodies like the City of Kenner.

The Brooks Act does describe a process whereby firms should be selected.

That process was parroted several times by Councilwoman DeFranchesch.

“Price is a secondary factor – it is negotiated after a vendor is selected,” DeFrancesch said.

“If you cannot come to an agreement that is fair with the first company (selected), you go to the second. Then, you can go to number three. You can pick up to three that is (sic) reasonable”.

So, now we’ve gone from the Top Three (which is reasonable) to the Top 13?

According to Councilwoman DeFranchesch, if the process is that you select the top rated, most qualified company and negotiate price with them, it would appear that the Top 8 companies were negotiated with and all declined to come close to the city’s estimated price.

With all of that negotiating, it’s a wonder that anything gets done in Kenner.

The reality is, there was never any negotiation between any of the companies other than Mayor Yenni telling his two campaign contributors, “I’ll give you this contract and I’ll give you this other one that’s for a little less money. Next time, I’ll make it up it to you.”

While Councilwoman DeFranchesch can continue defending the indefensible and carrying Mayor Yenni’s water, since the Mayor didn’t comment at the council meeting or to and walked out of the Council meeting when I got up to address the council the council about Councilwoman DeFranchesch’s comments, the fact is that these contracts don’t pass the smell test.

There is no possible way that Mayor Yenni or Councilwoman DeFranchesch can claim that these contracts are in the best interests of the people of Kenner. They were payback for political contributions – nothing more, nothing less.

Are we to believe that contracts are dispensed to the most competent vendors regardless of political contributions and influence, when the 9th and 13th highest rated vendors are selected and Councilwoman DeFranchesch wants to look into the camera and say in essence, “Our hands were tied. We talked to the first 8 companies and we couldn’t agree on a price”?

The Kenner City Council is the steward of Kenner tax dollars. How can Kenner taxpayers trust that the Council is seeking out the best value and using our tax dollars wisely?

With all of the debate and scrutiny over Jefferson Parish contracts, it would appear that the antics of Mayor Yenni and members of the Kenner City Council deserve some further scrutiny too.

Perhaps the next editorial in should be to demand reform in Kenner and rebuke Mayor Yenni.

I can dream, can’t I?