Atlanta City Council may tighten emergency contract policy, as second contractor pleads guilty

By David Pendered

As the second contractor charged in a public corruption probe at Atlanta City Hall pleaded guilty Thursday, the Atlanta City Council is devising a policy to guide the award of emergency contracts.

atlanta city hall

A second contractor pleaded guilty Thursday in U.S. District Court in Atlanta on charges related to bribing Atlanta city officials. Credit: David Pendered

The council’s Finance Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to hold a proposal in order to provide the administration, and committee members, additional time to review and respond.

The paper was sponsored by all seven members of the council’s Finance Committee.

As Finance Committee Chairman Howard Shook described the goal of the legislation during the committee meeting: “All this [involves] is ‘best practice’ that we can cut and paste.”

Committee members filed the paper Feb. 6. That was the first opportunity to submit legislation following the Jan. 25 guilty plea entered in federal court by Atlanta contractor E.R. Mitchell. Mitchell had benefited from emergency contracts awarded by Atlanta.

The U.S. district attorney’s office announced Jan. 17 that Mitchell had been arraigned on charges of conspiratorial bribery and money laundering charges. Mitchell paid more than $1 million to obtain Atlanta contracts, according to the statement released by U.S. Attorney John A. Horn’s office.

An alleged accomplice of Mitchell’s, Charles. P. Richards, Jr., pleaded guilty Thursday in U.S. District Court in Atlanta. The charges of conspiratorial bribery involved Richards’ payments of more than $185,000 to obtain City of Atlanta contracts, according to a statement from the U.S. attorney’s office.

U.S. Attorney John A. Horn

U.S. Attorney John A. Horn

The legislation proposed by the Finance Committee members would amend an existing city code that governs emergency procurements. The legislation says it intends to: “Add new safeguards to ensure integrity in the procurement process; and for other purposes.”

The vote to hold the legislation for further consideration appears likely to benefit both the administration and council.

Katrina Taylor Parks, deputy chief of staff to Mayor Kasim Reed, said the administration is in the process of refining its position on the legislation.

“A draft document is being prepared right now for this committee,” Parks said.

A few minutes later, Parks asked Shook if the legislation addresses only emergency procurements. Shook said the paper is limited to emergency contracts.

Committee member Alex Wan raised an issue that he later said can be addressed when the Finance Committee considers the legislation.

“One additional threshold I would say would require some justification if there is a percentage [price increase] above the regular market,” Wan said. “That would trigger some sort of report as well. There is an issue with speed selection. But if we’re paying many times over market, it would be good for us to understand the nature of the emergency and why that’s appropriate.”

Incidentally, the use of emergency procurements has been a friction point between the council and administration for more than 20 years. In some cases, a contract becomes an “emergency” because the administration has suddenly discovered an existing contract is about to end and presents the council with the outcome of a non-competitive bid. Councilmembers then grumble about the administration not monitoring the ending dates of contracts.

Howard Shook, chamber

Howard Shook

Here are the new measures proposed in the legislation:

  • “… The authorizing agencies shall always utilize existing master contracts when issuing an emergency procurement, except in circumstances when the contract cannot justifiably satisfy the agency’s needs.
  • “The following shall be included in the contract file:
    • An overview of the nature of the emergency, including relevant circumstances;
    • A description of the threat to the health or safety of individuals, property, or essential city function if immediate action is not taken and an estimation of the potential material loss or damage;
    • A summary of the contractor’s qualifications, experience and background to provide the emergency service and the basis on which the contractor was selected over other qualified and responsive firms.;
    • [part of the existing emergency code];
    • An account of how the contractor alleviated or eliminated the emergency, including a description of what consequences of what would have been if the emergency action had not been taken and the risk associated with inaction;
    • A designation when the contract award amount is $100,000.00 or 20 percent over the appropriate value threshold, whichever is less.
  • “Within 3 business days of commencing work or executing the emergency contract, whichever comes first, an authorizing agency must make the emergency contract available for public inspection. The agency may either post the emergency contract on the agency website or post summary information, which includes directions for obtaining a copy of the emergency contract, on the agency website.”

 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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