Parking Gate Providing a “Teachable Moment” for City Leaders

The controversial new $12 million TEE Center parking deck
Originally Posted on CityStink.net
Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012
Augusta, GA
Contributions were made to this article by Al M. Gray, President of Cost Recovery Works, Inc., a provider of Cost Avoidance and Cost Recovery for America’s leading companies, businesses and governments desiring Superior Returns.
Today, Augusta Commissioners will decide whether to push ahead with a 15 year management contract with  Augusta Riverfront LLC over the controversial new $12,000,000 TEE Center parking deck, or to put the brakes on the deal because of recent revelations that we helped uncover showing that not only does the city not own the land under the deck but that it has liens on it to secure more than $7,000,000 in debt. Citizen activists Lori Davis and Al Gray, representing the group Augusta Today, who uncovered the information about the land ownership and liens will speak before the commission today to explain why the management agreement should be voted down.
Some people will argue that we just need to move on and approve the deal;  that, yes this ordeal is a mess and there were lots of mistakes made, but that they cannot be undone now and so the best course is to just minimize our losses. But that argument is based on faulty logic. Is this really the best deal the city can negotiate with Augusta Riverfront LLC? Let’s remember who negotiated it on behalf of the city: Administrator Fred Russell, the same Fred Russell who mislead commissioners on multiple occasions about the land being donated and kept information from them about the liens. Can we really believe that Fred Russell negotiated the best deal possible? It is only slightly better than the one the commissioners voted down a few months ago, and this current proposal has been only slightly improved with what Russell has described as “minor tweaks.” With the information uncovered in the last couple weeks, is that really good enough? We don’t think so. The fact that this current deal has Russell’s fingerprints all over it is all the justification needed to defeat it.
Commissioner Grady Smith has a better idea. In an interview with WJBF’s George Eskola yesterday, Commissioner Smith said: “I think we should get into the room with the other side, let’s get all the facts on the table.” He is right. The Commissioners themselves should go back to the negotiating table with Paul S Simon of Augusta Riverfront LLC and see if a better deal can be made, instead of trusting the one that Fred Russell crafted is in the best interest of the taxpayers. Commissioner Smith went on to say: “When you’re dealing with the taxpayers’ money, let’s make sure everything is on the table. A lot of times…where there’s smoke, there’s fire, innuendo’s. Let’s get them clear.” We could not agree more with Commissioner Grady Smith on that point.
Mayor Pro-tem Joe Bowles told Chris Thomas of WRDW that he would “absolutely not” support the current management agreement on the table saying “It needs to be five years.” It appears to us that our elected officials may be able to do a much better job than Fred Russell in negotiating new terms over the management contract for the TEE Center parking decks.

The Mayor’s Misdirected Outrage

Mayor Deke Copenhaver
It’s not often that Mayor Deke Copenhaver speaks out on an issue of controversy but he finally weighed in on the debate over the TEE Center Parking Deck and the calls for a deeper investigation. But the Mayor appears to have directed his outrage towards the citizen watchdogs who uncovered the misdeeds rather than the people responsible for the mess. In a lengthy guest column that appeared in this past Sunday’s Augusta Chronicle, the Mayor wrote:
I also have shared that those individuals and families who are the foundation of my support generally are not the people who grouse and complain through websites, blogs and silly Facebook pages where adults behaving in the most childish manner possible actually invest hours out of each day in trafficking in rumor, innuendo and misinformation while seeing who can act the most absurd.”


We assume that the Mayor is talking about us and Augusta Today.  That’s OK, we don’t mind being called names. And I guess it does mean that the Mayor is paying attention to what we are doing, so that’s a good thing. But “trafficking rumor, innuendo, and misinformation“? We’re not exactly sure what the Mayor is referring to unless he believes that the city’s own public records contain “misinformation” on the parking deck deal, because that is where we have found most of our evidence thus far. And we would think that the Mayor would also be outraged to learn that there was a pattern of deception to mislead the public and public officials over the TEE Center Parking deck: First learning that the land was never donated as promised and then to learn that it has liens on it jeopardizing the city’s air rights. But the Mayor seems to think there’s nothing to it all.
The Mayor also took the time to blast the call for a forensic audit, calling it a “waste of money“. Actually, we now agree with the Mayor that a forensic audit may be unnecessary, but not because there is not impropriety involved over The TEE Center and Parking Deck, but rather because we have already proven a pattern of deception found in the public documents that we were able to obtain as well as through newspaper articles going back over 5 years. So in a sense we have already done the forensic audit for the city for free. Now, it all depends on what authorities choose to do with the information we uncovered.
And whereas we appreciate The Mayor’s concern for not “wasting” any more of the taxpayers’ money, that argument does seem to be a bit disingenuous coming from him. The Mayor didn’t seem so concerned about taxpayer money being wasted on huge severance packages going to fired incompetent department heads because Administrator Fred Russell could not keep accurate employee evaluations. The Mayor also did not seem too concerned about tax money being wasted on continuing to fight a loosing lawsuit against the video X-Mart. The Mayor also didn’t speak out when the city’s procurement department was costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of tax dollars in lawsuits. And just recently, The Mayor asked and received $100,000 in tax money for what is essentially a fancy conference room in the middle of Broad Street. This, amid one of the tightest city budgets in years that included layoffs and cuts to nearly every department, including public safety.  But now all of a sudden when it comes to investigating the irregularities over the TEE Center and parking deck, the Mayor is concerned about what he calls “government waste.”
But in a broader sense what is most troubling is the Mayor’s attitude that all of this should  just be swept under the rug because he thinks it makes the city look bad to outside companies. We agree with the Mayor, yes, building $50,000,000 worth of taxpayer financed facilities on privately owned land with liens attached to it, does indeed make the city look very foolish. But what would make the city look even worse in the eyes of outsiders is to blatantly try to cover it all up and suggest there’s nothing to it all. You see, that’s the dismissive attitude that lead to the financial collapse of 2008. A culture of corruption thrived in the financial sector because of a lack of oversight. Real estate was over valued with our tax dollars, and the folks with the creative accountants and lawyers made out like bandits with the taxpayers bailing them out in the end. We believe that outside companies would be far more concerned with obvious efforts by city officials to try and cover up deception, corruption and the blatant misuse of tax dollars, after all they would be paying large sums in taxes to this city if they chose to locate here.
Albert Einstein once said that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.” Well, this is certainly not the first time Augusta has found itself in a bad situation over one of these  realestate deals. We would like to remind the Mayor that the the city forgave a $7,500,000 UDAG loan to Augusta Riverfront LLC back in 1998 over the construction of the Marriott over the objections of then city administrator Randy Oliver. We have to wonder how this current situation would have been handled differently with someone like Oliver at the helm instead of Russell. Back then, Oliver received some heavy criticism from some very powerful local special interests for raising objections over forgiving the loan. But, then Oliver knew who he worked for, the taxpayers, not the special interests.
The question now before Augusta leaders is “Will you learn from this error and make sure that it doesn’t happen again?” It is very clear that a lack of oversight contributed to this. We now need our elected officials to be more engaged in the process and not simply trust Fred Russell or the lawyers to provide all of the answers, because it is apparent that the commissioners had extremely important information held from them by the city administrator and the lawyers; and these are people who are supposedly working on behalf of the city and being paid with our tax dollars.
In his Sunday guest column, the Mayor chided certain elected officials (without naming names) for “bullying” certain city employees. We certainly agree with the Mayor that  it is important to maintain decorum at commission meetings and there is certainly no place for insults and name-calling. But we must say that the timing of his column was quite odd. What about the taxpayers who have been “bullied” over this bad deal over the parking deck? It seems that the Mayor could have found the space to address that issue, but instead he seems to think that any criticism of the public employees who are partly responsible for this debacle should be off limits. We could not disagree with him more. We need our commissioners asking more tough questions and holding employees accountable. That’s what we elected them to do. In fact, perhaps if commissioners and the Mayor had been more engaged in the process from the beginning, all of these could have been averted  years ago.
What the Mayor is suggesting is that  Appearances should trump The Truth. We could not disagree more. And besides, public officials look the most foolish and suspect in the eyes of the public when they are trying to cover up the truth. It’s always best to get the truth out in the open, admit mistakes were made,  and then learn from them so that the same mistakes cannot be made over and over.  In the case of Parking Gate, we have a teachable moment, how our elected officials choose to learn from it is up to them.***

CS

 

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