Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Lafayette’s camera-enforcement program is a major money-maker. The council needs to be party to extending it.

Between an earthquake in Virginia, a hurricane in New Jersey and The Independent agreeing with Councilman William Theriot, signs of the apocalypse abound. But Theriot’s questions — the timing notwithstanding — about Lafayette Consolidated Government’s contract with RedFlex are valid and deserve our attention.

As we know from extensive reporting last week by local news media, the four-year contract with the controversial purveyor of those red light cameras and speed vans was signed in 2007 and should have and would have expired in June 2011 save for a clause in the contract that allows for one-year extensions without council approval. And the administration did just that last spring, arguing when it became an issue that it is not an uncommon practice for contracts of a wide variety. It’s not surprising that this extension would take place beneath the council’s nose: None was a member of the council in 2007 when the original contract was signed.

But shouldn’t one-year extensions of any type of LCG contract without council review be cause for concern? We should have a problem with such an arrangement, although we can draw a distinction between contracts for services only — running wires, digging holes — and contracts for services that generate revenue, especially, in the case of RedFlex, hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual revenue.

Redflex was sold to Lafayette as a means of generating money for traffic-safety programs and changing driver behavior. The former is certifiable, the latter arguable. But now that the administration has begun diverting Redflex revenue to non traffic-safety programs, it is even more a matter of propriety that taxpayers, through the council, have a transparent (re)view of this program. The RedFlex revenue dynamic changes the complexion of this discussion a good deal.

Into the fray has stepped former Lafayette assistant city attorney Lester Gauthier, who after reviewing the RedFlex contract and the Lafayette Home Rule Charter, decreed over the weekend that the contract was improperly extended. Gauthier, it must be noted here, is a member of the Lafayette Parish Democratic Executive Committee, and a fellow committee member, Mike Stagg, is seeking to unseat Durel on Oct. 22. There’s your grain of salt. But Gauthier’s argument is well-reasoned and well-researched, regardless of its effect on an election that Durel will almost certainly win walking away.

These one-year extensions of contracts are especially troublesome because they appear to make LCG contracts open-ended and, most important, vulnerable to corruption and cronyism.

If contracts such as RedFlex are as the administration portrays them, then short of a new council policy mandating review at the expiration date, can’t the city-parish president, in this case Durel, extend the contract again next year? And the next? And the next?

Presumably Durel’s successor can do the same, making that four-year contract inked in 2007 a perpetual covenant impervious to taxpayer review.

Assuming Durel is re-elected on Oct. 22 — a safe assumption — he will have four more years in office as C-P president. But what about the person who follows? Can we not imagine a politician with fewer scruples than Durel turning one-year extensions of lucrative contracts into a tidy little kick-back arrangement? I most certainly can.

We’re willing to give Durel a mulligan on this one; he’s arguably done nothing in his eight years in office to suggest this was nefarious or malfeasant. But next year the council needs to be part of the discussion. It should have been this year, and may well yet when the budget is finalized next week.

And the council should adopt a policy mandating that contracts — at least those that generate revenue and especially those that are controversial — be reviewed when their expiration date draws near.

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