City Council members expand oversight after criticizing lobbying contract

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Mayor Donna Deegan is standing by the decision to hire Langton Consulting in a $300,000 no-bid contract that some City Council members want her to cancel in mid-stream and invite other firms to make their pitches for doing federal lobbying and grant-writing.

City Council Finance Committee Chairman Nick Howland said the selection of Langton Consulting without advertising for other proposals involved less research by the mayor's staff than a family does to purchase a used car.

Despite such criticism, council members are not making any moves to try to yank funding from the one-year contract.

City Council will be putting more attention on no-bid contracts in general by having the City Council Auditor's Office attend the meetings of the Procurement Division committees that vote on awards of city contracts for everything from construction to supplies to professional services. The council also will get reports every three months from the Procurement Division on all single-source awards during that time frame.

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"I think we've taken several steps to look at this," City Council President Ron Salem said. "I think right now, they're probably sufficient. I think the mayor's office is very aware of our concern, and I think we should move on."

A mayoral aide said the Deegan administration plans to seek competitive proposals next time for the contract.

At issue in the Langton Consulting contract is an Aug. 28 memo by Brittany Norris, director of intergovernmental affairs in the mayor's office, to Chief of Procurement Dustin Freeman that said Langton Consulting has the "unique ability" to provide grant-writing support, federal lobbying and public policy formulation.

"Given the unique requirements of these three disciplines and the one-of-a-kind nature of this bundle, Langton Consulting is providing a type of full service for which a comparable offering is not available from any consulting firm, lobbying group, grant writing company, or other government relations company in Florida or elsewhere in the country," Norris wrote.

The city's Public Services Evaluation Committee then relied on that justification to recommend Deegan approve the contract with Langton Consulting without seeking proposals from anyone else.

During a Finance Committee meeting Tuesday, Howland said when he met with Norris to ask about that determination, she told him she did Google searches to see if any firms could do all three of those services: federal lobbying, grant-writing and public policy development.

Howland said Norris told him she did not do additional research such as emailing or calling firms to find out if they could provide what the city sought.

Howland said when he and his wife purchased a $19,000 used car for their son, they started with Google searches and then made phone calls and took test drives.

"And here the mayor's office issues a $300,000 contract and does nothing but Google searches, and that's taxpayer money," Howland said. "One would think you'd want to treat it like your own."

He said his council office did its own research of eight lobbying firms by looking them up online and following up with phone calls. He said that outreach found three of them do federal lobbying, grant writing and public policy development in their array of services.

Langton Consulting does not do lobbying as one of its services. For its contract with the city, Langton Consulting will sub-contract with Becker & Poliakoff, a firm based in Washington that has Florida offices in 11 cities, to handle the federal lobbying.

Scott Wilson, the mayor's liaison to City Council, said that at the time of the award to Langton Consulting, the city needed a firm on board as soon as possible to pursue federal grant opportunities.

"It was a quick turnaround time because we were trying to get to work quickly to try to secure some of those federal dollars," he said. "So this is a one-time thing. We're not looking to do this every year."

He said Norris plans to start the process for requesting competitive proposals "very shortly" for the next contract. Wilson did not specify a time frame. The contract with Langton Consulting is for 12 months.

"Obviously, with more time and more knowledge, we hope to find other companies for the RFP (request for proposals) that we're going to put out in the future," Wilson said.

Langton Consulting and its president, Mike Langton, supported Deegan during her mayoral campaign. Langton and his wife hosted a campaign event at their home for Deegan. Wilson said that had no bearing on awarding the contract to Langton Consulting.

"The mayor has said repeatedly throughout this conversation that political campaigning and governing are two separate things," Wilson said.

City Council member Kevin Carrico asked City Council Auditor Kim Taylor if council could give the Deegan administration three months to do a competitive process and at that point, pull back funding for the current Langton Consulting contract.

Taylor said that because of the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches, City Council cannot cancel the contract. She said if council voted to pull back funding for the Langton contract, the mayor has the authority to transfer up to $500,000 from elsewhere in the budget to continue funding the contract.

Howland asked Wilson to come back to the Finance Committee in two weeks to say whether the mayor plans to continue with the Langton contract for its full term or issue an earlier termination date that still gives enough time to do a competitive process for selecting a firm.

Deegan said last week the contract is "signed, sealed and delivered, and we're already working with that company. So no, we will not be revisiting that contract. There's no reason to."

She said the mayor's office went forward "with full transparency" on the contract without any objections from the Procurement Division on doing a single-source award with Langton, and the firm has a solid track record of successfully winning grants for cities across Florida.

"I've said from the very beginning that I was elected to this office to get things done, and we've got to move things faster in this city," she said. "We've got to go out there and go aggressively after those federal dollars we need."

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Jacksonville City Council examines contract award by Mayor Deegan