Tuesday, August 28, 2012
Analyzing the Aftermath of the Parking Deck Saga
By The Outsider
After the more than nine month long ordeal over the Reynolds Street Parking deck debacle, yesterday's events at the Marble Palace that resulted in the approval of the long beleaguered parking management contract may have seemed rather anti-climatic.Indeed, we got wind that approval of the contract was imminent -- if certain conditions were met. Key to passing the agreement was the inclusion of safeguards for the city that specifically stated in clear language that Augusta Riverfront LLC (ARLLC) could not bill the city for their overhead expenses. Previous proposals were riddled with loopholes that ARLLC could exploit, amounting to a blank check from the taxpayers.
Also, included in yesterday's contract was a clause giving the city the right to audit ARLLC's books to verify their compliance. This was a crucial safeguard for the city and one that ARLLC's lawyers were fighting all the way up until the final hours leading up to yesterday's vote, but in the end they yielded and agreed to include the rights to audit.
Wayne Says Sell It!
Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle (dist 8) deserves a large amount of the credit for these safeguards being included in the final contract. We understand that the lawyers were trying to twist Guilfoyle's arm all the way up to the final hours to get him to bend under the pressure and approve the deal without these key safeguards, but the district 8 commissioner would not budge. He stood his ground and insisted that these conditions be met or his vote would be NO. Guilfoyle added the stipulations and to the agreement in his motion yesterday to approve the contract.
The citizens of of District 8 in South Richmond County can feel confident that they have someone like Wayne Guilfoyle representing them. Though a freshman commissioner, Guilfoyle has demonstrated leadership on a variety of important issues and continues to exhibit a willingness to study the details of these complex contracts, weigh all of the options, and play hardball when necessary to get the best deal for the taxpayers. Augusta could use more commissioners like him.
Not Gonna Be Bowled Over
Mayor Pro-tem Joe Bowles deserves credit for negotiating better terms in the contract that gives the city a much more favorable split of deck revenues at 70/30%. He also negotiated the inclusion of a pedestrian skywalk over Reynolds Street from the deck to the TEE Center that will enhance public safety and steer patrons to the city-owned parking spaces on the upper levels. Bowles even found the savings in the construction of the deck that will pay for the skywalk at no additional cost to the city. It's this keen eye that makes Bowles a consistent leader on the commission.
The mayor pro-tem is also willing to admit when mistakes have been made and then work diligently to correct them. He also has a knack for forging compromise through the art of negotiation, but is willing to stand his ground when necessary to make sure the interests of the taxpayers are protected. His leadership will certainly be missed when his term expires at the end of this year, but Bowles will leave office with a nice legacy and he has certainly set the tone for all future mayor pro-tems.
Wise Man Lockett
From the very beginning, Commissioner Bill Lockett has been a vocal critic of the parking management deal with Augusta Riverfront LLC. This is probably why he voted against approving yesterday's contract -- as a protest of the entire process. That is understandable. Time and time again, Lockett's wise caution from his in-depth study and analysis of these complex matters has been proven right. Lockett doesn't take anything at face value. He wants to see it in writing -- he asks the right questions -- he goes over every detail with a fine tooth comb. Some people may find this tiresome, but without Lockett's determination to get to the truth and his attention to every detail, Augusta would have likely ended up with a much worse deal nine months ago locking the city into a 15 year contract with ARLLC instead of just 5.
Though ultimately unsuccessful in getting the forensic audit to probe the process that gave us this debacle, Lockett was right in asking for it, and we predict when all is said and done he will be vindicated on that issue as well. Augusta could use more commissioners like Bill Lockett who understand that their primary duty is in protecting the interests of the taxpayers of Augusta instead of bending to the whims of people like Paul S Simon. We suspect this is why Lockett does not face opposition for reelection.
Theater of the Absurd
On the opposite end of the spectrum is outgoing Commissioner Jerry Brigham, who fought vehemently against all attempts to give taxpayers a better deal over the parking deck. In what can be best described as a scene from the theater of absurdity, Brigham jumped at the opportunity yesterday to get in front of the cameras after the vote and tell a reporter for WJBF News that the final contract is ".. financially more stable than what was originally proposed and I think the Commissioners feel better, in general, with this proposal.”
It's too bad the reporter did not retort by saying something along the lines of: "But Mr Brigham, weren't you the one who wanted to rush this deal along and fought against these changes from the very beginning?"
Indeed, if Brigham had of gotten his way, the parking deck contract would have been passed last Fall and it would have been for 15 years instead of 5 years and would have been riddled with loopholes that ARLLC could exploit as a blank check, using the taxpayers as their own personal piggy bank. Brigham's contract had none of the safeguards and denied the city the rights to audit. And when these deficiencies were brought to his attention by government watchdogs, Brigham refused to budge and admit that errors were made. So maybe Mr. Brigham's statement means he has had a change of heart? We doubt it -- it's probably more about saving face and trying to take the credit for the hard work of others who in the end forged the compromise that got a much better deal for the city.
Unlike his colleague Joe Bowles, Brigham will leave office with a cloud over his head. In every step of the process, Commissioner Brigham fought hard for the interests of Paul Simon and Augusta Riverfront LLC over those of the taxpayers in his district and the city as a whole. We can only hope that his successor will be someone more like Commissioner Guilfoyle, Bowles or Lockett. The voters certainly have a choice before them this Fall.
What Happens Next?
Though this closes the chapter on the nine month long saga over the parking deck contract, the issue is far from over. Now commissioners will have to decide how to hold the people accountable who created this mess in the first place. Why was the RFP (Requests for Proposals) process circumvented in favor of a hideously unfavorable deal with ARLLC -- one for which they did not even submit a bid? Why were commissioners consistently mislead about the land under the deck being donated? Why were commissioners not informed of the $millions worth of liens on the property until after government watchdogs discovered them? Why were commissioners not made aware of the results of 2009 Parking study that showed that a $12 million parking deck was not even necessary and a $1 million surface lot would have sufficed. Why did city-hired outside counsel agree to such atrocious terms under previous contract proposals that were written entirely by the lawyers for ARLLC?
Now that the contract terms have been settled these are the questions commissioners need to ask and find answers. This process did not happen by mistake. What should have been a simple and clear-cut process was intentionally made more complex and nearly incomprehensible to most commissioners, the media and the public in an effort to sneak through a contract riddled with loopholes, lacking controls and caps on expenses and absent safeguards like the rights to audit. The people responsible for this must be held accountable so that this does not happen again. This ordeal also demonstrates why the city needs consistent procedures and guidelines governing these kinds of contracts. What we currently have is a an ad-hoc process governed by whim. That must change or Augusta will keep repeating the same mistakes with future contracts.
As the agenda now moves on to the the much larger TEE Center contract there is much more at stake. If commissioners have learned anything form the parking deck saga, they now know not to take anything at face value and to study every detail and spot every loop hole. Instead of rushing something through like commissioners did in December of 2009 that gave us this mess, they would be wise to yield to caution to insure that the interests of the taxpayers are protected above all else. If commissioners ask the right questions, study the details, and use good judgement and common sense, we don't expect this process to drag out for nine months. But it's entirely up to them.***