Howland files legislation for certain no-bid contracts to go through Jacksonville City Council

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New legislation could bring the end to no-bid lobbying contracts in Jacksonville city government – filed in response to a contract Mayor Donna Deegan’s office approved.

The City Council finance committee criticized the $300,000 federal grant writing and lobbying contract to Langton Consulting, owned by Deegan supporters, because the administration offered it directly without shopping for other bids.

Committee chair Nick Howland asked the administration to drop the contract and filed a bill Thursday to require all future state and federal lobbying and grant writing contracts to be approved by City Council.

"It has become clear to us on the Finance Committee that this process reeks of a sweetheart deal for a political supporter,” Howland said in a statement. “The ‘Transparency for Taxpayers’ Act will help put a stop to these contracts and provide much needed oversight of the mayor's office.”

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Deegan has objected to the city providing single source contracts in the past and said it was a “really good idea to take a look at how we do business all the way around” in regard to no-bid contracts at a Nov. 30 press conference. The legislation filed Thursday, however, would be specific to grant writing and lobbying which makes up a small portion of the contacts the city awards annually.

“If the idea is, ‘Let's discuss it and find out if we need to change the rules there,’ I said that long ago,” Deegan said Nov. 30 before Howland filed his legislation. “If we want to look at how the rules are for engagement on single source contracts, [I’m] perfectly happy to do that.”

The mayor’s office released a statement after the legislation was filed saying the administration was “fully committed to transparency” and has already started the standard proposal process for next year.

The administration terminated the city’s previous federal lobbying contract with Ballard Partners upon taking office. Jordan Elsbury, the former chief of staff for Mayor Lenny Curry, is the managing partner of the Jacksonville branch, and Curry took a position with the firm after leaving office. Both supported Deegan’s mayoral opponent Daniel Davis.

The city allows single-source contracts when there is justification that only one entity could perform the service. Deegan and her team have repeatedly defended the contract because Brittany Norris, director of intergovernmental affairs in the mayor's office, said Langton Consulting had the "unique ability" to provide grant-writing support, federal lobbying and public policy formulation.

The procurement division did not object to the contract.

Howland and members of the Finance Committee spoke against the contract after the Times-Union reported the firm’s owners hosted a campaign event for Deegan in January.

The new legislation would give council the power to accept, reject or even change the contract, including to alter the “scope, financial, duration, renewal and termination terms.”

"We need to ensure we are good stewards of taxpayer dollars, and this bill will require additional transparency, integrity and accountability for these contracts going forward,” Howland said in a statement. “It is time to put an end to the backroom deals. I anticipate this legislation will receive the full support of my colleagues.”

As of Friday, only council member Terrance Freeman co-sponsored the bill. The council will take up the bill in the new year.

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Jacksonville City Council to consider future of Deegan no bid contracts