Contracting watchdogs missing a tooth

The new state watchdog panel charged with safeguarding hundreds of millions of dollars worth of annual contract awards is stuck at the starting line awaiting a final appointment from Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

The Contracting Standards Board, which was supposed to have started work on Jan. 1, still is waiting for an executive director, which Rell has a statutory duty to appoint. And the chairwoman of a new legislative panel searching for budget-saving options is urging the governor to finish the job.

“This board is directly responsible for developing and carrying out policies on multiple aspects of contract procurement,” Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, co-chairwoman of the Commission on Enhancing Agency Outcomes, wrote to Rell. “Without this panel, the work we did to enact this legislation-which you lauded as ‘a capstone’ to your ethics reform-is essentially meaningless.”

Slossberg was referring to comments Rell made in October 2007 when the Republican governor and the Democrat-controlled General Assembly ended in a three-year battle over the so-called “clean contracting” bill, a fight that featured three Rell vetoes before a compromise was struck.

“This bill serves as a capstone to my ethics reform effort and it will continue to foster public confidence in the way Connecticut conducts its business,” Rell said when she signed the legislation nearly two-and-a-half years ago.

That measure created a 14-member standards board and granted Rell authority to name eight members and to appoint its executive director. Legislative leaders have completed the six appointments awarded to them in the law.

Rell made six of her appointments to the standards board before Jan. 1, and completed the final two on Jan. 7 and 22.

But the administration said in early January that it was uncertain about hiring an executive director at this time given the state budget deficit. State Comptroller Nancy Wyman reported Monday that the budget current faces a $518.4 million shortfall. The governor’s press office said Monday that the search for a director continues, but that it also remains focused on balancing state government’s finances.

The standards board must audit, at least once every three years, most agencies that award state contracts. It also must review cost-benefit analyses that state agencies must prepare when looking to privatize any government service.

State government relies heavily on the private sector, particularly in the social services field, to deliver programs. About $1.3 billion out of this fiscal year’s $18.64 billion budget is dedicated to paying contracts with private, nonprofit agencies that provide services to the mentally ill, the developmentally disabled, abused children, inmates, drug addicts, and others.

After first assuming the governor’s post in July 2004 on the heels of the contracting-related scandal tied to her former running mate, ex-Gov. John G. Rowland, Rell repeatedly declared restoring government integrity as her top priority. Rowland served 10 months in federal prison after admitting he accepted about $100,000 in gifts from state contractors and from his staff.