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County Takes Time to Rethink Role of Lobbyists

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For years, government-reform advocates and others have called for changes in the county’s procurement system, which they consider a needlessly political process that puts the interests of a few well-connected lobbyists before those of the public.

Their complaints fell on deaf ears until the county plunged into bankruptcy 13 months ago. Since then, the Orange County Grand Jury as well as a county privatization task force have called for reform.

Last week, the push for change reached the Board of Supervisors when member Don Saltarelli asked county officials to examine ways of improving the procurement process and to report their findings later this year.

“I think there is a public perception out there that if you have the right lobbyist, you will get the business,” Saltarelli said. “That doesn’t make it true. The system works, but I think the public has the view that it’s not the best possible system out there.”

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Activists credit the new interest in reform on the release last month of grand jury testimony that highlighted how financial services firms knowingly donated large sums of money to some supervisors in the expectation that their contributions would win them business.

The bankruptcy has already inspired an overhaul of the way the county handles municipal bonds and investments. The rules, approved last week, prohibit the county from giving business to firms that contribute money to supervisors’ campaigns.

There are no guarantees that procurement reform will quickly follow. Saltarelli said the system might not require major changes but could benefit from some scrutiny and fine-tuning.

Still, such longtime activists as Shirley Grindle said the time might finally be right. “Hopefully, it’s just the beginning,” she said.

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The central criticism of the procurement system is that it gives lobbyists too much influence. Orange County is the only urban county in California that gives elected supervisors a central role in the selection of architects, engineers and other contractors for government projects.

In most cities and counties, staff members evaluate proposals and recommend a top firm to elected officials, who either ratify or reject the choice.

Under the Orange County system, however, a staff committee studies proposals from architecture and engineering firms and provides the Board of Supervisors with as many as three “qualified” finalists without ranking them in any order.

Supervisors then make a final decision, often after lobbyists hired by the competing firms make their pitches.

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Lobbyists insist that the process provides supervisors with solid information about the proposals, helping them arrive at the best choice. But Grindle and other activists fault the current system for allowing lobbyists to contribute to the reelection campaigns of supervisors in the hope of gaining influence.

Critics also contend that firms serious about getting work from the county have little choice but to use lobbyists. Of the nine largest design or construction contracts the county has awarded in the past 12 years, all winning bidders had hired lobbyists, Grindle and others said.

“The process has become ingrained,” said Alan Yourman, an officer with the American Society of Civil Engineers. “This should not be a political decision but a technical one.”

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Yourman’s organization and other professional design associations have urged the county to ban lobbying for contracts once proposals have been submitted. They also want the staff committee to recommend a single finalist to the board or rank the top three in order of preference.

Political consultants and some county officials reject criticism of the procurement system. They contend that lobbyists provide a valuable service to the county by highlighting the benefits of the firms they represent.

“We have limits as to how much staff the [supervisors] and the bureaucracy have,” political consultant Harvey Englander said. “Communicating what a company might be able to offer the county is extremely important. They provide information to supervisors.”

Consultants have a strong incentive to give accurate, honest advice, Englander said. “If a lobbyist lies to an elected official and gets caught, that lobbyist has no credibility.”

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Others are wary about turning over the procurement process to bureaucrats who are not elected and therefore not accountable to the public, saying that doing so could produce a secret system ripe for abuse.

Despite those misgivings, supporters said that the prospects for reform have never looked better. Changing the system now is important, they said, because the county is moving to privatize some government services as part of its bankruptcy recovery efforts.

“I’m really encouraged,” said Victor Opincar, a member of the county’s privatization task force. “I think the action the supervisors took to approve the investment policy [reforms] is a real signal that the board wants to do things differently.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Program of Reform

The county’s procurement system has long been the subject of criticism from some government reform activists and others who say it gives lobbyists undue influence. Here’s an outline of the system’s four steps and reforms that have been suggested:

CURRENT

REFORM

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REQUESTS FOR PROPOSALS

The county seeks proposals by sending out an “RFP” describing the project. The RFP sometimes includes an estimated price.

Remove the cost estimate, because listing it puts the county at a disadvantage when it sits down to negotiate a contract with a winning firm.

EVALUATIONS

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A committee made up of county staffers

evaluates proposals based on such factors

as experience, price and the ability of each

firm to handle the job.

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Add experts from the public to the panel making evaluations.

RANKINGS

Committee sends a list of up to three “qualified” firms to the Board of Supervisors. But the panel does not rank which finalist it considers most qualified.

The committee should recommend one firm as “most qualified” or rank the finalists in order of preference.

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SUPERVISORS’ DECISIONS

Supervisors evaluate finalists before taking a final vote. Often, lobbyists hired by firms

make pitches to the supervisors.

Lobbyists should be banned from the process once proposals have been submitted. The current system allows lobbyists to make campaign contributions to supervisors in the hope of gaining access.

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Sources: Orange County General Services Agency; Times reports; Researched by SHELBY GRAD/For The Times

Los Angeles Times


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