Lourdes Coss, the top official in the city's Strategic Procurement Division, is gone. The city says the Chief Procurement Officer resigned, but Coss says she was forced out because she was pushing too hard to make the city's purchasing process more transparent and fair.
A spokeswoman for Mayor Annise Parker, who appointed Coss to her post two years ago, said in a statement that Coss resigned last week, effective November 19, but according to Coss that's not true.
"I didn't resign," Coss said in an email to the Houston Press. "I was terminated without cause."
Coss claims she was told by Finance Director Kelly Dowe that she did not get along with "certain directors and Finance Department executives," whom Coss said she believes disagreed with her implementation of a new city code aimed at standardizing the procurement process and keeping it fair and open.
The code added an equal employment opportunity clause in city contracts, prohibited bid rigging, and imposed ethical guidelines for personnel involved in city procurement. The city did not have a procurement code until this ordinance was passed by the city council in early July.
"Accepting change is hard, especially when [it] impacts the way in which one prefers to conduct business," Coss said in her email to the Press. "I reminded Mr. Dowe that I had achieved everything in my job description, but Mr. Dowe advised me that as an executive staff member, he could dismiss me without cause. I was asked to turn in my city phone, computer and any city property immediately. I asked if I could at least inform the staff and Mr. Dowe advised me that the process would not allow that. An executive from the Finance Department escorted me to the parking lot. The action was very unexpected."
Coss' reign as chief procurement officer ended one day shy of the two-year anniversary of her appointment by Mayor Annise Parker. It seemed Parker had high hopes for Coss, who came to Houston in August 2013 with more than 25 years of experience, including two years as chief procurement officer for Chicago's Cook County.
"I am proud to announce Lourdes as a member of the city team," Parker said in a 2013 press release when Coss was hired. "She has a lot to offer, and she will hit the ground running because Houston is one of the largest purchasers in the nation. We found one of the best and look forward to all she can accomplish, which will ultimately be to the taxpayers’ benefit.”
It is unclear exactly when Coss fell out of favor in the Finance Department. Most of Coss' co-workers in the procurement office declined to comment, though City Purchasing Deputy Director Calvin Wells apparently thought highly enough of Coss' performance to write her a glowing recommendation as recently as November, when he posted this on Coss' LinkedIn page:
"Lourdes is very strong in the areas of re-structuring organizations to accomplish Best Practices in Public Procurement. Super Skills in Organization and Change Management. I have worked for 45 years in both Private & Public Procurement and I believe her knowledge in procurement excels anyone I have worked with during this period. I would recommend her to any organization that needs a leader that demonstrate strong leadership abilities with an OUTSTANDING CHARACTER!!"
In a statement, the Parker spokeswoman Janice Evans said the city expects to begin its search for the next chief procurement officer before the beginning of 2016. Meanwhile, Wells and Assistant Chief Policy Officer Carolyn Hanahan will fill in for Coss.
The "chief procurement officer" position was created in 2012, after Parker appointed a Procurement Task Force headed by councilman Clarence Bradford to examine the city's procurement process. The Task Force's recommendations also led to the creation of the city's first procurement manual. In the introduction to the manual, the mayor wrote that "it is essential that we continue to conduct our purchases in a consistent, sound, and ethical manner, while keeping the public’s best interest in mind."
The city would not elaborate on Coss' departure. Multiple calls to Dowe's office were not returned, and Evans said in the statement that "it is the city's policy not to discuss personnel matters publicly."
So, as of yet, there's no official word why Coss, who said she is a single mother with a daughter in school, would be kicked to the curb so soon after her procurement code passed.
Here's the whole procurement code if you want to flip through it:
Update 6:15 p.m.: Emails the mayor's office released today confirm that Coss was indeed pushed out. Those emails also shed a bit more light into what appears to have been a petty inter-departmental disagreement that led to Coss' ouster.
On August 19, city finance director Kelly Dowe sent out an email informing department directors that Coss was out as Chief Procurement Officer. "At my request, she will resign," Dowe wrote..
Two days later, Coss sent an email to Mayor Parker, thanking her for the opportunity to serve as Chief Procurement Officer and pointing out that during her tenure she had helped the city win two national awards: one for integrity in the procurement process, and another for reducing cost to the city.
The mayor replied with this message:
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"I don't completely understand the problem between you and Kelly Dowe, but I have no intention of letting the departments recreate their own uncoordinated procurement processes. You have extensive procurement knowledge and experience. Houston should be a good job market for you. Use me as a reference."
Coss responded with a longer email describing what went down in her final meeting with Dowe:
"To be quite honest, I didn't know that there was a problem either. I was executing the plan that Kelly thought was "excellent" back in April or May. I was caught off guard! He mentioned that certain directors were not happy. I had mentioned to Kelly that to help with department relationships, I had invited some of the directors and certain executives to lunch individually to see if an informal setting would help bring them on board. Some accepted and some didn't.... Another thing that came up was that Finance [was] not getting credit for Procurement accomplishments... I don't know what I could have done differently. I know that I worked very hard to make sure that people were included in the change process if they so desired."
These emails certainly raise the question of why Coss, of all people, was the one the city ultimately chose to cut loose.