Split City Council approves legislation in reaction to Deegan using single source contract

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Any future no-bid selection of a firm to do lobbying or grant-writing for the city of Jacksonville will have to get City Council approval, a reaction by council to Mayor Donna Deegan awarding a contract for federal lobbying and grant-writing to a campaign supporter after her office determined no other firm in the nation could do the work.

Council voted 12-6 for the legislation that City Council member Nick Howland said will bring single source selections for lobbying and grant-writing "into the light" by ensuring the full council can ask about the justification for them.

"Do we think politically connected lobbying firms should be given sole source contracts in the city without our City Council oversight?" Howland said. "I don't think they should. Transparency is a bipartisan issue."

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Opponents called the legislation mean-spirited overkill.

City Council member Jimmy Peluso said it is "looking for a solution to a problem that doesn't exist." He said the selection process was done correctly by Deegan and the bill is "just petty, it's foolish, and it's a waste of our time."

"It's not about transparency," he said. "It's about a witch-hunt. It's about making hay of an issue that doesn't really exist."

Howland filed the bill after Deegan awarded a $300,000 no-bid contract in October to Langton Consulting, a Jacksonville firm, to do federal lobbying, grant-writing, and public policy development.

The city did not invite proposals from any other firms. A mayoral aide did a Google search to see if any other firm could provide all three services in a single contract. Based solely on that Google search, the mayor's office determined Langton Consulting was uniquely qualified to do the work.

Langton Consulting specializes in grant writing but does not do lobbying. For that part of the contract, Langton told the city's Procurement Divisionit would sub-contract with Becker & Poliakoff, a lobbying firm.

A Times-Union review of some large firms registered to do federal lobbying found that Alcalde & Fay and The Ferguson Group show on their websites that they provide both lobbying and grant-writing service to their clients.

City Council members supporting Howland's legislation said plenty of other firms could have competed with Langton for the work if the city had requested proposals. Council member Kevin Carrico noted that Mike Langton, the owner of Langton Consulting, hosted a campaign event for Deegan when she was running for mayor.

"In this case, a Google search wasn't enough," Carrico said.

Deegan has said the city needed to move fast to have a firm on board for seeking federal contracts. Scott Wilson, who is Deegan's liaison to City Council, said Deegan opposes Howland's legislation because the process already is transparent with noticed meetings of a procurement evaluation committee that meets in public.

For single source awards, those are posted publicly on the city's web site for at least seven days for anyone to file a protest before the recommendation goes to the mayor for the contract award. No one lodged a protest of awarding the contract to Langton.

"So we don't believe additional legislation is needed at this time," Wilson said.

City Council members Tyrona Clark-Murray and Ju'Coby Pittman said the award of the contract to Langton Consulting came in the opening months of the Deegan administration.

"I think I would have done a little more than the Google searches," Clark-Murry said.

But she said there was ample opportunity for the public, including council members, to challenge the proposed sole-source award before Deegan approved the contract. Clark-Murray said Deegan "is not some schoolgirl who needs to be slapped on the hand" for something that happened when her administration was just starting.

"We're trying to handcuff the mayor when it's not necessary," Clark-Murray said. "There are so many processes in place so that this particular type of action is transparent."

"She was new when she came in," Pittman said. "She didn't know all the processes. Let's fight some things other than this."

City Council member Matt Carlucci said the Republican-controlled council was being motivated by partisanship because Deegan is a Democrat. He said the legislation will backfire down the road by reducing a mayor's ability to move quickly if hiring a particular lobbyist would help the city handle an issue that flares up in the state capital.

"Please take off your hat of partisanship and can we get enough members to put on the hat of statesmanship?" Carlucci said.

Carlucci, who endorsed Deegan in the mayoral campaign, was the only Republican to join all five Democrats — Peluso, Clark-Murray, Pittman, Reggie Gaffney Jr. and Rahman Johnson — in voting against the bill.

Johnson quoted a lyric by the rapper Drake and said "it seems like there's some madness going on here."

"We can change and vote against this legislation so we can truly show that we are bipartisan and we are willing to work together," Johnson said.

Voting for the bill were Howland, Carrico, Ron Salem, Randy White, Ken Amaro, Raul Arias, Michael Boylan, Joe Carlucci, Terrance Freeman, Mike Gay, Will Lahnen and Chris Miller.

"I think we're here for accountability, and in my eyes, the legislation speaks to accountability," Amaro said.

Arias said the bipartisan approach would be to support the bill.

"Let's be united and let's have transparency for the our voters who elected us," he said. "Simple as that."

Deegan has said her administration will do a request for proposals this year from all interested firms the next time the city seeks a federal lobbyist and grant-writer. Langton Consulting has a one-year contract.

Deegan used a competitive process to select The Fiorentino Group in December to handle state lobbying for the city.

The administration previously agreed to provide reports every three months to the council's Finance Committee on single source awards during that time span.

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Jacksonville City Council expands authority on lobbying contracts