SADOW: Delay Invites Scrutiny Of Bossier City No-Bid Contracting

Why the Empire lost its first vote by the Bossier City Council since the body’s new term began cannot be separated from the ongoing issue of the increasing amount of no-bid business it has awarded to Manchac Consulting.

This week, controversy erupted over a seemingly-arcane issue. The Walter O. Bigby Carriageway project, designed to extend the Arthur Ray Teague Parkway to create an unimpeded north-south corridor across almost the entire city, at present requires closure of the Shed Road Union Pacific railroad crossing. Federal law gives railroads the upper hand in determining crossings of its right-of-ways by local roads, whether over or above.

When an agenda item proposed closing this crossing, debate erupted. Having to answer for the decision was Ben Rauschenbach, the Manchac employee in charge of the project. He also has served through a series of short-term contracts as city engineer, a questionable arrangement according to the city charter, for almost a year-and-a-half just after Manchac took over the project. Manchac already holds a contract to run city water and sewerage services.

That change occurred under controversial circumstances as well. Back then, Republican Councilor David Montgomery and former city attorney Jimmy Hall accused long-time city engineer Mark Hudson of misrepresenting progress on the project as costs spiraled millions of dollars beyond budgeted. Hudson also had complained Union Pacific was slow-walking rights-of-way issues. At that meeting, Hudson was shoved aside and Manchac awarded a $2.1 million contract to manage the project, with only no party Councilor Jeff Darby, a critic of the practice of consistently awarding Manchac no-bid deals, voting against. Two months later, Hudson retired and the arrangement with Rauschenbach would begin.

At the most recent meeting, representatives from NTB Associates, the design firm for the project, spoke about the closing issue. Only days before the Council had gone to the trouble of calling a special meeting to boot NTB off the job for alleged failures to resolve the right-of-way issue at the Shed Road crossing. Yet at that meeting nothing of that sort happened, inferring that with further investigation new city attorney Charles Jacobs discovered the problem lay elsewhere. Instead, at that previous meeting Rauschenbach gave a number of reasons why the crossing had to be closed, admitting no progress had been made on what he declared intransigence on Union Pacific’s part, and the Council could advance the agenda item to a final reading that occurred at the last meeting.

There, the NTB speakers began to put the puzzle pieces in order. They professed total ignorance up to then of the closing idea, and recommended additional study. In explaining that, they said years ago they had submitted plans and permits to keep the crossing open, calling the closing an unnecessary “knee-jerk” reaction resulting from, they insinuated, laxity on the behalf of Manchac in taking the steps to keep the crossing open. They particularly fingered Rauschenbach for the disinterest, saying Hudson had kept progress moving with Union Pacific, who seemed open to the idea, for it to remain open but all that disappeared when he left the scene. One speaker, an experienced professional, called Hudson one of the greatest public servants he ever had worked with and claimed had Hudson stayed on the job, “we would not be here today.”

Soon after, Rauschenbach replied, dancing around the topic but essentially admitting Manchac never had pushed the issue of keeping the crossing open, in the process sounding like he shilled not for the city, but the railroad. Thusly he defended the decision to close now, citing cost considerations in making the contractor wait among other things. Other city officials supplemented his remarks in discussing issues such as public safety issues with stoppages, the length of these, reactions of businesses affected by the crossing (which they claimed didn’t really mind closing it) and how traffic might back up on the Carriageway if the crossing remained open.

Montgomery also dove right in, echoing some of these points, while in the main Darby brought up countervailing issues, such traffic flow to those businesses and cumbersome workarounds without the crossing. And it was Darby who made a motion to delay up to 30 days discussion of the closing issue, which eventually succeeded on a 4-3 vote.

That came out the best move, simply because of the profound ignorance of all involved about the issue, particularly Republican Mayor Tommy Chandler who shouldn’t have tolerated such a vacuum of information. For example, no one knew how many times a day a train went through or brought up state law outlining a system to prevent blockage of public safety vehicles and of fines to discourage general traffic embargoes of more than 20 minutes.

But most interesting was the outcome of the vote. For almost two decades, the four Council graybeards at the core of the Empire – Montgomery, Darby, Democrat Bubba Williams, and Republican Scott Irwin (for a bit longer, a graybeard in temporary residence given his unusual overtime extension in council service to end before the year is out) – have been joined at the hip on almost every issue, a tendency that has caused frivolous spending to the point, after a recent vote to issue $75 million more in debt without explanation, of racking up city debt of $535 million or $6,880 per resident, by far the state’s highest among its large municipalities. But almost the only issue causing dissension, on Darby’s part, among them has been the no-bid contracting of Manchac.

Keep in mind that Montgomery persistently and loudly has championed the concept of no-bid contracts for Manchac and bond underwriters (despite the Louisiana Legislative Auditor advising otherwise), with Irwin and Williams in tow. Unsurprisingly, all three voted against the pause.

However, significantly rookie Republican Councilor Vince Maggio, who until this point has been content to lick Montgomery’s boots, and veteran Republican Councilor Jeff Free, who seldom objects to Montgomery leading him around by the nose, joined renegade rookie Republican Councilor Chris Smith and Darby in agreeing with the pause to carry the day. On any other issue without Darby’s longstanding skepticism of the Manchac no-bid arrangement, the graybeards’ unanimity likely would have sucked Free and Maggio along for a resounding win.

For the Empire, the delay issue wasn’t so much about costs and benefits but about the credibility of its members, minus Darby. Clearly, Rauschenbach and Manchac dropped the ball to the city’s detriment, whether out of being in over their heads, or a lack of really caring in the knowledge with the most of the Empire’s help they faced no competition and the money would keep flowing, or both. More debate would make that all the more obvious, and intensify a very uncomfortable spotlight on the no-bid decisions and that practice.

Because it’s not a difficult step next to start questioning whether that attitude of Montgomery et. al. is what facilitates significant cost overruns and botched opportunities on projects such as this and others like Shed Road expansion, runs up city debt, and forces the city to borrow $75 million more to cover its mistakes. Ultimately, it makes voters suspicious whether they should keep such politicians in office.

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