Councilman says government ‘failed’ to deliver on local Isaac recovery
Published 12:09 am Saturday, May 26, 2018
LAPLACE — Where there once was the sound of hammers driving home the nails of hope, silence reigns.
An ongoing, complex legal web involving agencies reaching from state to parish levels continues to frustrate families still trying to recover from Hurricane Isaac.
“I just want to apologize to the residents,” a somber Michael Wright said during a Parish Council meeting Tuesday night. “Your government has failed you. We are supposed to work for you and that’s clearly not happening.”
“I’m not going to sit here and put the blame on anyone but ourselves. At the end of the day the only ones suffering are the residents,” the councilman added.
The meeting finally brought to a head an issue that has been stewing since February, one that includes the Louisiana Office of Community Development (OCD), the district’s attorney’s office and Parish President Natalie Robottom. The dispute has many tentacles but at the core from which all else has spawned is a contract with Royal Engineering and Consultants LLC, which was hired in 2013 for disaster recovery project management consultant services.
Royal was essentially hired to oversee and administer the Hurricane Isaac Community Development Block grant that provided funding for demolition and the rebuilding of homes damaged during the devastating storm.
It is that contract and the legal disputes, as well as conflicting stories arising from it, that has created a staggering amount of confusion.
The story dates to 2013 when Royal was initially hired for a two-year period beginning April 1 of that year, with three one-year extensions that began April 1, 2015. The final extension expired March 31 of this year, and shortly after that all construction ceased.
According to St. John Chief Administrative Officer Laverne Toombs, 241 homes have been completed, another 41 were under construction at the time of the stoppage and 19 have yet to start.
All parties agree Royal could be hired for another year at a cost the DA’s office and OCD estimate at $65,100, a figure Toombs contradicts but will not publicly provide the parish’s estimate.
What is known is that in April Royal sent a notice to the district attorney’s office saying services with the parish were being suspended because of lack of payment. However, on Tuesday Toombs revealed Royal has now been paid in full, which caught assistant district attorney Keith Green by surprise.
“We have not received any communication from Royal,” Green said, adding the records remain incomplete until communication rescinding the original communication is sent.
For the past few months, Robottom has been asking the Parish Council for authorization to terminate the agreement with Royal and advertise a Request for Proposals so as to conclude the CDBG grant, which has a Sept. 30, 2019 deadline for all grant expenditures and closeout.
During each meeting, the D.A.’s office in writing has “strongly advised” the Council not to advertise for a RFP, and the matter has been repeatedly tabled.
Robottom has also said in the past OCD has recommended the parish terminate the existing contract with Royal because the contract was non-compliant with the RFP guidelines and that OCD was unwilling to work with the parish with respect to a new grant program that will become available because of a pending lawsuit.
However, Green said the DA’s office spoke with Ed Legnon of OCD and was informed “at no time did the Louisiana OCD advise parish administration the contract with Royal was invalid nor did they recommend the parish administration terminate the existing contract with Royal because the contract term was non-compliant with the RFP guidelines.”
However, according to information obtained by L’OBSERVATEUR, in an email dated Feb. 2 from Legnon to parish grants administrator Myra Valentine, Legnon said he thinks it “needs to be bid again.”
Additionally in an email dated Feb. 8, Sandra Gunner of OCD informed Robottom that in reviewing Royal’s contract, there was concern the contract must legally terminate March 31, 2018. She stated the original RFP called for a two-year contract with three one-year options.
She also instructed Robottom confer with legal counsel, but Green said the parish president “never contacted our office for advice or an opinion regarding this matter.” However, there is some question if she retained outside counsel since, according to Green, the attorney for OCD said it was “evident that (Robottom) had been in communication with an attorney and/or receiving legal advice.”
Robottom, who did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, recently told L’OBSERVATEUR that Royal was obligated to complete the work in year six of the contract but the firm was not obligated to do so without payment.
“Funds for payment in year six are contingent upon proper procurement of a consulting firm, which has not been approved by the council,” she said. “Thus, entering into or remaining in a contract without funding is a violation of the budget act.
“A reasonable inference would be to terminate the contract and properly procure a firm for year six to complete the program.”
Green informed Council members that the current contract with Royal is valid and the firm is obligated to close out the parish’s individual projects in year six, which extends from April 1, 2018, through March 31, 2019. He outlined Royal’s obligations include preparing and submitting the final wage report and the project close out package that include financial reports, the clearing of any liens and finalizing outstanding payment requests.
In a memorandum obtained by L’OBSERVATEUR to Sandra Gunner that was dated Feb. 9, Valentine said, “the parish felt Royal’s budget for year six was reasonable and did not go over the budgeted amount for their services. It is a better use of the remaining funds to extend Royal’s contract instead of stopping the program, soliciting for new program manager, scoring and making a final award determination.”
Valentine went on to say the parish was “not confident” a program manager who could manage the remaining projects with the available budget could be found. Green noted that whether OCD reimburses the parish for services performed by Royal in year six is not relevant to, and has no bearing on the validity of the contract or Royal’s obligation to close out the services. He again strongly advised the Council not to terminate the contract with Royal and not to authorize the administration to authorize advertisement for RFP.
Toombs, the chief executive officer, admitted the parish has the money to pay Royal and “OCD has never told us they would not work with us.” But she added a new wrinkle when she informed Council members that work is now being stymied by OCD’s request to develop a new policy regarding duplication of benefits.
She said OCD “has stopped all work because of the fact they wanted to make sure there was no double dipping (residents receiving CBDG grant money who might also be receiving funding from other sources, such as the Small Business Administration, FEMA or private insurance policies).”
“That is the reason why the work has stopped,” she said. “It has nothing to do with Royal not being paid. ”
Toombs’ apparently stunned Council members, who asked why OCD would require a change in policy five years into the program. She said administration has asked the same question.
She also revealed a 2016 HUD audit uncovered some concerns that have since been corrected.
Toombs recommended Council members schedule a private meeting with herself, Robottom and Valentine to answer additional questions. However, Green immediately objected, emphasizing to Council members that because the program involves public funds, public trust and public works, those discussions should be held in a public forum so citizens can be informed, especially those whose homes are still not repaired.
A portion of the 55-minute discussion also focused on the apparent disconnect involving parish administration and the D.A.’s office. When Wright asked Toombs if legal counsel had been in on the calls with OCD, she said no.
“I’m going to go back to my original request (through a previously adopted motion) that anytime (administration) is having a conversation with OCD I would have our legal counsel involved,” Wright said.
Toombs countered that when the D.A.’s office has had conversations with OCD, the administration has not been involved.
Wright replied he was speaking to administration and suggested his next move could potentially be in the form of an ordinance, which carries more weight.
Toombs said administration has no problem doing as Wright has instructed, but the councilman called that response “lip service.”
Administration and the D.A.’s office agreed to schedule a conference call with OCD to help bring clarity to a muddled picture.
— By Richard Meek