Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell is calling for Mayor Kasim Reed and colleagues on the Council to support a moratorium on the approval of city contracts that begin services in 2018 so that the next council and mayor gets their say-so.
Mitchell, who is a candidate for mayor, is the highest-ranking city official to call for a pause in certain contracts. His request comes amid a federal investigation into a cash-for-contracts scandal at City Hall that so far has led to guilty pleas from two contractors and the firing of the former procurement chief.
In an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday, Mitchell said the potential fallout of that investigation factored into his thinking. But he also said he has been told by people inside and outside city government that the current administration appears to be rushing to finish contracts that don’t expire or won’t be enacted until next year.
“My concern is if you are rushing something that we haven’t typically rushed, the likelihood or the chance of making a mistake is greater,” Mitchell said. “And given the scrutiny we are under right now as a city, I think that is not prudent.”
Mitchell said his proposal would not affect contracts that expire this year or emergency contracts. He said the immediate business of the city should not be interrupted.
Some business people interested in the contracts have already raised concerns that the city is rushing the process.
Former City Council President Cathy Woolard and Councilwoman Mary Norwood, two of Mitchell’s competitors in the mayoral race, signaled support for a moratorium. Another candidate for mayor and Reed accused Mitchell of playing politics.
Kwanza Hall, District 2 city councilman and a competitor to succeed Reed, said he’s heard contractors make similar requests, but said, “I think we have to be very careful that’s not motivated by a group with any special interest.”
Hall said he was not willing to endorse a position when he doesn’t know all the contracts it might affect. The council should vet all contracts as they normally do.
“Don’t just make it a blanket statement,” Hall said. “We’re not going to do anything for the next five months?”
The words from Reed’s office were far harsher.
In a statement, Reed’s office called Mitchell’s request a ploy to win campaign contributions.
“Although Ceasar will not become Mayor, he should understand that there is only one Mayor at a time, and that mayors who are fortunate enough to be elected and then re-elected serve 8-years, not seven-and-a-half,” the statement said. … “He wants to be able to delay important projects for the City of Atlanta so that he can solicit contributions from those businesses while he is running, in hopes that he will deliver a specific result on the remote chance that he wins.”
Reed has said he was not involved in any wrongdoing and has pledged the city’s full cooperation with federal authorities.
Mitchell insisted his proposal is not about politics, and his position might not be popular with some vendors. He said the request is about giving all “a fair shake.”
“Now is not the time for divisiveness and cynicism and animosity,” he said. “This isn’t personal. It’s about what I think is in the best interest of taxpayers.”
Massive airport contracts
Among the contracts that might be affected by a moratorium is a massive procurement for more than 80 new shops at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
The contracts are for seven years with a potential three-year renewal — meaning they could last through the next mayor’s term.
But it’s no sure thing that the airport and city officials will even be able to meet thier goal to finalize the concessions contracts before the mayor’s term ends in January 2018.
Mitchell said he’s concerned a rushed contracting process now could bind the city’s hands during the term of the next mayor and council.
He also said if elected mayor he would call for an audit of the city’s procurement processes and an overhaul of the city’s ethics program.
On Wednesday, a third man was indicted in the ongoing federal bribery probe on charges related to an alleged attempt to intimidate the feds’ star witness.
“We don’t know quite frankly where all this is going, but there is the potential likelihood that the next administration and the next council will have to work very closely with the investigatory agencies, including the FBI and the U.S. Attorney to sort through any fallout or any aftermath,” Mitchell said.
Woolard, a former Council president, called it “appropriate to let the future mayor and Council have the opportunity to hire their own teams, and to approve long term obligations that will shape the future direction of the city.”
“I’ve been very concerned about the pace of renewals and lack of information and public process on some very key decisions and hope the Council will hold strong on this,” she said.
The contracting process for new airport shops started in July, and the city delayed the due date for proposals to Sept. 20. Its original plan was to award contracts in October and execute the leases in December. That allows less than six months from the start of the contracting process to the end.
Historically, it has taken much longer than that to strike airport concessions contracts.
The massive 2011 contracting process for new restaurants at the airport, for example, took a year from the start of the process until the city got legal clearance to sign contracts. That’s partly because the city decided to throw out proposals and restart the process.
The airport took nearly two years to award contracts for concessions on Concourses A, B and C that were awarded in November 2016, a process in which the city again decided to throw out the proposals before starting over.
The contracting process for new Concourse E restaurants started in March 2016 and still has not been completed.
Hartsfield-Jackson general manager Roosevelt Council said the airport is starting the contracting process early for the new airport shops to have them ready by the time the contracts expire in September 2018.
He said the schedule was set to “foresee any kind of possible mishap that could take place.”
The retail concessions deals are among a number of significant airport contracts that could also be affected by a pause in the approvals process.
Even if the current administration does not finalize the contracts before the Reed leaves office, the expectation of who will be in power can change how businesses compete for the contracts, if some prime concessionaires try to choose subcontractors based on connections.