Over the past decade or two, the City of Atlanta, its elected officials and municipal employees have oft found themselves in the news for the wrong reasons when it comes to the subject of government ethics. Hoping to tackle this problem head on, new Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens is advancing what appears to be an ambitious new policy agenda focused on fostering a more-effective and ethical government…. And surprise, surprise, new pay-to-play rules seem to be an intriguing option on the table.
To coincide with the end of his first 100 days in office, Mayor Dickens recently released a report drafted by his transition team that details a comprehensive set of policy recommendations designed to improve government service to Atlanta’s residents. The report covers four main policy areas, including such important issues as neighborhood empowerment and community safety, but also shines a bright spotlight on government ethics and procurement integrity. In preparation for drafting its recommendations in this space, the transition team conducted a number listening sessions with various city and community stakeholders, including the City Procurement Office, the City Ethics Officer, ethics advisors from local universities, and outside experts in the space (including one of our blog’s humble authors).
Of particular note to our readership, the transition team’s report recommended that the Mayor strongly consider the implementation of new city pay-to-play provisions that would restrict campaign contributions by existing and prospective municipal contractors after the submission of a bid, as well as for a meaningful period after the commencement of a city contract. This recommendation grew out of the input the transition team received from a number of community stakeholders that noted how the city has traditionally given the impression that political contributions are a prerequisite to future success in both the city and airport procurement processes. Hoping to change this impression, the transition team drew inspiration from the pay-to-play restrictions employed by other major cities (including the City of Los Angeles) in recommending the creation of new rules that seek to balance the principals of transparency, compliance, discretion and efficiency. We’ll see what that means when legislative pen is put to paper, but at a high level such efforts strike this publication as a worthy goal.
In addition to the implementation of pay-to-play restrictions, the newly-released report provided other recommendations for increasing transparency in the city’s procurement process. While the city’s procurement office has previously made minor strides on the transparency front by requiring the online publication of current contract solicitations and existing contracts, the report recommended a variety of additional measures to improve the current system, including updating the city’s emergency procurement protocols, working to limit the shaping of municipal RFPs/RFQs by outside stakeholders, and improving the ethical review process for sole source contracting arrangements. To more effectively tackle the ethical challenges identified in recent years, the transition team also recommended that the Mayor and City Council provide increased financial support to the city’s newly created ethics offices, and the institution of more robust ethics training and enforcement frameworks.
The prioritized inclusion of these pay-to-play and ethics recommendations in Mayor Dickens’ new policy report suggests that the City of Atlanta may soon join a growing number of municipal governments nationwide that have adopted rules and restrictions focused on increasing transparency in public procurement and lessening the potential influence of political giving on the award of government contracts. While Atlanta has certainly had a checkered past in this department, it is clear that the new administration is interested in advancing a policy agenda that improves the ethical standing of city government moving forward. A worthy goal to be sure, but we’ll have to wait in see if the new proposals gain any traction in the months and years ahead.