in Houston, Texas

Public contracts subject to less public review under plan by Sen. Royce West

Monday, Mar 02, 2009, 01:45PM CST
By Matt Pulle


State Sen. Royce West has sponsored a plan that strikes a blow against open government and could boost his own public-sector lawyering career.

Additions to public contracts --- in the tens of thousands of dollars --- could be OKed by bureaucrats rather than elected school boards at public meetings under the bill filed by the Southern Dallas Democrat.

School boards currently vote on such spending over $25,000.

A coalition of local government employees put forward the bill, saying it will help them conduct business more efficiently.

But critics caution that the plan means spending will be subject to less public scrutiny.

“For the most part, it’s probably going to work just fine, but by having these provisions you create an opportunity to get around the Open Meetings Act," says Don Venable, a former Dallas school district trustee. "If the board turns around and delegates discretion to someone to change the contract without having to come back to them, then neither the board nor the public is aware of them.”

And West himself could benefit if the plan moves ahead. One backer of the measure says the bill could apply to West's legal work for the Dallas Independent School District, if his firm enlarged its legal contract via a change order. But another official says it's rare for attorneys to submit their bills in this way.

Fewer delays and eyeballs

West's bill would allow a governing body to delegate more oversight of a vendor to a middleman.

This person, in turn, would have the authority to approve a change in the contract so long as the revision costs less than $50,000 and is not more than 25 percent of the original contract amount. Under current law, elected bodies generally have to approve any contract changes of more than $25,000 during a regularly scheduled meeting.

West was asked to file the bill by the Texas Public Purchasing Association, which includes school, city and county employees. The lawmaker also chairs the Intergovernmental Relations Committee, where the bill will be discussed. The measure is intended to streamline the often complicated rules on administering public contracts.

If passed, its backers believe, it would allow school boards and city councils to carry out projects with fewer delays.

For example, say a contractor needs to use a more weather-resistant type of brick on a $10 million new school because of new insurance rules. If this change costs less than $50,000, then under this law, the school district does not have to include this item on the board's agenda and have them vote. That process would take at least two weeks. Instead, the district can go ahead and break ground.

“This would help us operate more efficiently and still maintain a good amount of control over public spending," says Gary Kerbow, a board member of the purchasing association and employee of the Carrollton/Farmers Branch Independent School District.

But Venable has a different perspective on the bill.

Elected to the Dallas school board in 1997 -- not long after the district's superintendent, Yvonne Gonzalez, went to prison for spending $18,000 of school funds on luxurious office furniture -- Venable says the proposal would reduce oversight where it is needed most, on smaller, less scrutinized purchases.

"What bothers me about the bill is that these are the very places where the corruption tends to show up," he says. "It does create avenues to institutionalize problems.”

For his part, an affable West was open to suggestions about his bill. He tells Texas Watchdog he will review his legislation to see what effect it has on open government.

“If there is anything in this bill that deals with issues of transparency, I’ll take it out," he says.

More:


~ Story continues here. Read about West's law firms' $3.9 million in bills to DISD and past questions surrounding West's roles as legislator and hired legal gun for the school district.


~ Click here to see letters and billing records from West's law firm to the Dallas Independent School District.

Comments
Suzette Watkins
Saturday, 03/07/2009 - 07:57PM

WHAT?!

tired dog
Saturday, 03/14/2009 - 02:02PM

West carries water for friends and clients, what would you expect?

The \'security code\' is a bitch to read, pls post it in b/w!

Jennifer Peebles
Saturday, 03/14/2009 - 04:01PM

Tired Dog,

Welcome to the blog! Thanks for reading us and writing in. And we'll try to get the security code problem fixed for you.

Take care,

Jennifer P.

jennifer@texaswatchdog.org

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