During Tuesday’s meeting of the Alexandria City Council, there was a split-decision to delay the introduction of an ordinance entering into a professional services contract with Concordia LLC for the Comprehensive Resiliency Program. At first glance, it may sound like a pedestrian, ordinary parliamentary delay, but as someone who was once involved in the grant application and the decision-making process that followed, I believe citizens must be aware of what is really going on here. It may sound like a really technical initiative, but at its core and its heart, the initiative is primarily concerned with updating Alexandria’s twenty year old comprehensive master plan, ensuring that we all have a strategy for large-scale natural or man-made disasters, and modernizing our antiquated land use and zoning ordinances, which are in obvious need of a face-lift.
I could tell this story from the very beginning, but I won’t burden readers with mundane details. Here are the simple and irrefutable facts: In the aftermath of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, the Louisiana Recovery Authority (now defunct) received federal disaster relief funding that was to be competitively allocated among affected parishes and municipalities, under the banner of resiliency. The LRA provided the criteria and constraints of the application and, subsequently, reviewed all applications on their merit. Thanks, almost entirely, to the insight and ingenuity of Daniel T. Smith, a former City contractor who is currently attending Georgetown Law and Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, Alexandria received the second-highest allocation in the State of Louisiana. The Louisiana Recovery Authority was obviously impressed by Alexandria’s coherent and comprehensive vision, its appreciation of the issues, and its desire to create a model program that would bring our community into the 21st century. Daniel’s application, which I helped to edit and review, was concise, purposeful, innovative, and brilliant, as evidenced by the LRA’s decision to award Alexandria with $567,000 (second only to the City of New Orleans).
After receiving the notice of the award, the City of Alexandria was required to issue a Request for Proposals, which was subject to the rules and regulations governing federal funds and which ensured that the highest-ranked firm would receive the award. We received, all told, over a dozen responses to the RFP from firms all across the country, and after a selection committee, comprised of professional planners, engineers, lawyers, and administration officials, carefully and diligently reviewed these responses, they whittled it down to four firms, all of whom were required to participate in interviews. These interviews were then also scored, and pursuant to the regulations governing this project, the highest-ranked applicant was to be selected for the contract. If, for any reason, there was a compelling reason to reject the first-ranked firm, those reasons were to have been documented in writing, and at that point, the City could have potentially awarded the contract to the second-ranked firm.
But here’s what happened: The City Council leadership called for an A&E Selection Committee. It was not televised. It occurred in the Council committee conference room, which, incidentally, does have cameras in it. I was present at the meeting, and in my opinion, it could have and should have been televised, but of course, that decision belongs to Council leadership; they decided to keep the meeting off of television. The City submitted its findings: Concordia LLC was the top-ranked firm. Design Workshop was in a close second place. A firm out of Dallas, Freese and Nichols, ranked third. And Billes Partners, from New Orleans, ranked fourth. After over fifteen minutes of testimony about the process, the laws, and the reasons stated for selecting Concordia, City Councilman Jonathan Goins abruptly stated that he was casting his vote for Billes Partners, and almost immediately thereafter, Councilwoman Mitzi Gibson stated that she too was voting for Billes. The third member of the Committee, Councilman Silver, voted to approve Concordia.
Neither Councilman Goins or Councilwoman Gibson offered any explanation for their vote, which was against the recommendation of the selection committee and which, absent any explanation, placed the funding and the project in jeopardy and, now, in peril. Daniel Smith attempted to plead with Councilman Goins, reminding him that his decision could prevent the project from ever coming to fruition, as the federal guidelines required Goins and Gibson to state and document the reason why the City needed to skip over the top-ranked firm, the second-ranked firm, and the third-ranked firm in order to award the project to the bottom-ranked firm. I’ve read reports that Daniel and I recommended Billes and are somehow to blame for this fiasco; nothing could be further from the truth. Again, it is a shame the meeting was not televised, and I suspect the Council had a reason to prevent its broadcast.
Normally and ordinarily, the Council can reject the recommendations of the City in a competitive bid for work, but only when they’re dealing with the City’s money. When you’re working with federal grant money, administered by the State, you can’t just arbitrarily reject the top-ranked firm who has been recommended after a lengthy selection process, a process that had been subjected to State oversight. Yet that’s precisely what occurred.
This project will take, at the very minimum, two years to complete; its application was based on such an expectation, and the funding was awarded with this in mind. Thus far, the Alexandria City Council had already delayed it for nearly four months. It’s late September of 2011, and the City is required to spend the funds by the end of 2013. The Council’s decision on Tuesday to delay the decision by another two weeks is yet another example of their dereliction of duty and complete and utter irresponsibility.
There is only one other alternative: Mitzi Gibson, who cast her vote for Billes, the bottom-ranked firm on the short-list, and who was charged by Councilman Goins with coordinating with the State, could suggest that the City simply begin the whole process from scratch. In so doing, Ms. Gibson would ensure two things: First, she’d ensure litigation against the City; because of the City Council’s actions, which are in defiance of the binding guidelines for selection, the top-ranked firm– nationally-renowned experts, by the way– have already expended thousands of dollars out-of-pocket to protect their own interests. And second, she’d ensure that the City would lose the funding entirely. There’s absolutely no possible way for the City to restart a months-long selection process, make a recommendation, negotiate a contract, and then complete the work within the timeframe. No way. No possible way.
So, I hope Alexandrians will see this for exactly what it is. Either Jonathan Goins, Ed Larvadain III, Roosevelt Johnson, and Mitzi Gibson support this much-needed initiative, or they’ll be guilty of relinquishing hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant funding. And why? Seriously, why? It frustrates me to no end. It pains me. I know, precisely, how much time, energy, and effort was spent to secure this, and to see it all undone like this, well, it’s just unfathomable.
I know the guys at Billes. They’re good people. But they simply weren’t the top scorer. I know it was nothing personal. There are other opportunities in Alexandria, of course, and if they want to demonstrate goodwill to our community, I’d suggest that now is an opportune time. Allowing a small group of Councilpersons to fight for their firm, even though it would likely result in a forfeiture of funds and at the expense of the entire community, is not the best way to demonstrate dedication or commitment.