Friday, July 20, 2012
Cutting Through the Spin Over ParkingGate
By The Outsider
Despite how some government officials and members of the local media have been trying to spin the events from this past Tuesday's Augusta commission meeting, the citizen watchdogs who have been leading the charge for more transparency and accountability in the ParkingGate debacle won two significant victories.
Lori Davis went before the commission to appeal to the conscience of city leaders to "park" a very lop-sided management contract for the $12 million publicly financed Reynolds Street Parking deck with Augusta Riverfront LLC. As we detailed in a previous report, the lop-sided contract, that was drawn up by ARLLCs own attorneys (not those hired by the city) was riddled with loop holes and amounted to a blank check. To put it in simple terms, it was a bad deal for the taxpayers.
Earlier in the day on Tuesday we got word that there was some political maneuvering by Commissioner Jerry Brigham and Augusta Riverfront LLC President Paul S Simon, to try and ram through the contract at the last minute. This followed a finance committee workshop the previous Friday where a majority of commissioners said they were not prepared to vote in favor of the contract as it stood and wanted a thorough comparison of the deal with ARLLC and others that had been rejected by city administrator Fred Russell. City hired outside counsel Jim Plunkett was tasked by commissioners to provide that analysis. Many commissioners expected the parking deck management contract to be removed from the agenda for the July 17th commission meeting.
But surprisingly, early on Tuesday, a comparison magically appeared just in time for the commission meeting that supposedly said the ARLLC deal was $14,000 cheaper than one Aampco Parking systems had submitted in an earlier bid. The only problem is, this comparison was drawn up by Paul S Simon and Augusta Riverfront LLC... the same folks who have been trying to get the lucrative parking deck management contract... hardly an unbiased source. Why didn't Augusta's hired outside counsel Jim Plunkett put together the comparison as he was tasked to do by commissioners at the Finance Committee work session the previous Friday? Paul Simon and Jerry Brigham probably thought they could catch commissioners off-guard like they did on February 7th, when a tentative management agreement was passed with similar last-minute political maneuvering. George Eskola, senior government reporter for WJBF news pointed out the obvious conflict of interest in Augusta Riverfront LLC providing their own comparison in his 5pm report on July 27th, "But this comparison is coming from Paul Simon of Augusta Riverfront LLC the company that owns the Marriott not the city's attorney who worked on the deal ”
But this time things would not go in Paul Simon's favor. The contract was tabled for the second time in a month after Commissioner Jerry Brigham announced that he did not have the votes lined up to pass it. So now it will go back to the drawing board... where hopefully the taxpayers can finally get a more favorable deal, one with caps on what ARLLC can bill the city and minus all of the loopholes that gave Paul Simon practically a blank check courtesy of the city of Augusta. This is what we have been asking for months.... to halt this hideously bad contract from being approved, and to get a better deal for the taxpayers. The results from Tuesdays commission meeting now provide that opportunity.
But to listen to some in the local media, particularly a struggling weekly print tabloid, the results from Tuesday were somehow a rebuke of Lori Davis and a defeat for the citizen watchdogs at Augusta Today and CityStink.net. We have to wonder... what meeting did they attend? As we said, Paul S Simon and Augusta Riverfront LLC were unsuccessful in their last minute efforts to ram through a lop-sided management contract for the parking deck. Lori Davis, the citizen watchdogs, and the taxpayers of Augusta won that day.
Some in the media wanted to focus all of their attention on the vote to halt progress on the forensic audit looking into the questionable deals associated with the parking deck. Though certainly the circumstances and the evidence uncovered thus far warrant a full forensic audit, it has hardly been the primary goal for the citizen watchdogs like Lori Davis who have been investigating this matter since October of last year. The main goal has always been to make sure that the taxpayers get a better deal and a better return for its $12 million investment in the deck. This also means assuring that the city gets control of the land free and clear of all bank liens. The results from Tuesday's meeting were a step in that direction.
The story that some in the media have been completely missing over the forensic audit is the hypocrisy of its most vocal opponents on the commission who have been complaining it is just a waste of taxpayer money, all the while these same people are more than eager to sign over a blank check to Paul Simon and Augusta Riverfront LLC in a series of bad deals that would pay for many forensic audits.
However, something rather stunning happened at Tuesday's meeting that also seemed to go unnoticed by some in the Augusta media, particularly the folks at that struggling weekly print tabloid. In lieu of proceeding with the forensic audit, commissioner Joe Jackson made a substitute motion to forward this whole debacle over to the District Attorney and the GBI. That motion passed with an overwhelming majority. Wow. Whatever Jackson's motivation, he is on to something here. We have been having to go through a cumbersome and expensive process of initiating numerous government open records requests to uncover the evidence in ParkingGate. Jackson's move could now give government watchdogs and investigators unfettered access to the volumes of government documents that exist on these deals. Again, this is yet another win for the citizen watchdogs and taxpayers.
Commissioner Jackson also suggested that perhaps we should "open Pandora's box" and look into the deals associated with the Laney-Walker redevelopment project. We could not agree more, and we have also been at the forefront of that investigation, initiating numerous open records requests that have revealed more waste of tax-payer dollars and possible fraud in that massive project.
These are all quite major revelations in this story, and a bit of a vindication for government watchdogs like Davis, but the narrative the folks over at that struggling weekly print tabloid have been attempting to pursue is one of ridiculing Davis over the childish behavior and disrespect shown by some government officialsl. In particular, the writer at the tabloid mentions an incident at the Finance committee work session last Friday where Paul S Simon tried to belittle Lori Davis and us here at CityStink.net for our investigative reports into the parking deck debacle. Simon called us the "bad press." Well, we will gladly wear that title as a badge of honor coming from Simon.
We of course wouldn't expect him to rave about our reporting, as we have pretty much thrown a wrench into his grand plans to get a lop-sided management contract for not just the parking deck but also the even more lucrative TEE Center. Mr Simon probably never expected anyone to question these deals, better yet dig deep into them with open records requests.They have become accustomed to a largely complacent local media, like the folks at the struggling weekly print tabloid, who find these matters just "too complex" to pursue. This has allowed Simon and the folks at Augusta Riverfront LLC near free reign in Augusta to get pretty much whatever they want courtesy of the taxpayers. This lead to them becoming complacent and feeling emboldened, and always looking for more. They never saw us coming.
The folks over at that struggling weekly print tabloid thought it was funny that some Augusta commissioners snickered when Paul S Simon admonished Lori Davis and us here at CityStink.net for an article we did a couple of weeks ago that showed how the management contract under consideration with Simon's company was riddled with loopholes that had Augusta on the hook for maintenence and equipment costs for the entire 640 space parking deck, when Simon's company would still own and control the entire ground floor.We rightly pointed out this did not appear to be a fair deal for the city. But Simon took to the podium last Friday to complain,
"You see all this stuff on these blogs that’s just wrong...they had me on a little street sweeper." This prompted giggles from some commissioners in a scene that the weekly tabloid described as a "bunch of fraternity brothers" and according to the tabloid, this surely must have been embarrassing for that pesky Davis woman.
Notwithstanding the not-so-subtle undertones of sexism in all of this, the point that was also completely missed by the weekly tabloid is that amid all of these snickers from the good-ole-boys club, no statesman emerged to call Mr. Simon out, instead they fell over themselves to kiss his ring. Here was a man coming before them acting as though his company was doing Augusta a huge favor by allowing the city to use the Marriott brand on the $12 million parking deck the taxpayers had paid to build on his land. Simon's company not only got a wonderful $12 million new parking deck courtesy of the taxpayers, but also a $38 million gift in a brand new convention center attached to his hotel, giving his company exclusive use of the facility. And we pay him hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for this honor. And now he was coming before the commissioners pretty much demanding that they sign off on a hideously lop-sided management contract that added more insult to injury. Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth!
And Lori Davis should be made to feel humiliated in all of this? If anyone should feel humiliated, it's the city leaders who have allowed themselves to be taken for such a ride. You build a $12 million parking deck on land you don't even own, and even worse it has over $7 million worth of bank liens on it. You build a $38 million convention center without an executed CORE agreement and also on a parcel of land still owned by Paul Simon's company. Maybe the snickers should have been directed at themselves. Surely, Paul Simon was probably saying "you suckers" under his breath.
But at the end of the week a majority of commissioners saw the bad deal for what it was and put a halt to it. Good for them. Commissioners Wayne Guilfoyle, Bill Lockett and Mayor pro-tem Joe Bowles have shown particularly outstanding leadership on this matter and should be applauded by the taxpayers. Sure, the buildings cannot be unbuilt now, but commissioners can now see to it that the taxpayers get the best return on their investment, and that has always been our primary goal from the beginning. People like Lori Davis should feel proud and the taxpayers of Augusta should thank her for her courage and perseverance in this ordeal.
And despite the ridicule from the folks at that struggling weekly print tabloid, there have been others in the local Augusta media who have provided commendable coverage of this story. Particular accolades go out to George Eskola of WJBF, Chris Thomas of WRDW, Renee DeMedicis and Doug at WNRR 1380 AM, Ben Hasan's Urban Pro Weekly, The Metro Courier, Austin Rhodes and Scott Hudson at WGAC.
A free press is an integral part of any democracy, holding our government accountable to the people. The role of a free press is to cut past the spin and propaganda to get at the truth. This is a duty that some in the Augusta media obviously still believe in. Some though, like the folks at that struggling weekly print tabloid, seem to think it is more important to ridicule those of us who still believe in that principle. As they belittle the government watchdogs who have been breaking the big news stories over the past 8 months, perhaps it is out of frustration, as they see the writing on the wall and their role in Augusta's media world slipping rapidly into irrelevancy. Oh and by the way, we can handle the ridicule. If we are making this many people angry in Augusta's establishment, then we must be doing something right.***