Equal Protection, Equal Accountability

Comments of Al M. Gray to the Augusta Commission
Equal Protection, Equal Accountability
March 1, 2016

Mayor Davis, lady and gentlemen of the commission, thank you for the opportunity to speak today.
The baseball great Yogi Berra once said “If you come to a fork in the road, take it” but after its last two meetings perhaps this body should stop, back up and try another fork before the wheels come off of Augusta’s government like one of those KME firetrucks. Citizens, officials, and observers far and wide have been taken aback by votes to remedy a pay-increase scandal which represents a horrendous breach of Constitutional equal protection for the one employee and the simultaneous dismissal of equal accountability for 3 others who arguably had more responsibility.

The vote and particularly the commentary during the last commission meeting filled me and most observers with dismay, not just because of the ugly tone, but because the transparency so loudly promised during the SPLOST campaign is obviously dead. A citizenry who saw its garbage collection service cut in half now sees, yet again, tomfoolery to shift money between accounts to cover benefits to the downtown.They see the time-consuming machinations this administration has undertaken to do it during a time in which new SPLOST controls were supposedly a priority.

The biggest scandal in Augusta history – the financially ruinous Tee Center/Laney Walker Development deal – wasted more $tens of millions than a convention of con artists could dream up. The principle TEE contract required extensive records to be kept until the year 2020, yet neither side of the ugliness of the last 2 weeks wants to empower Augusta by learning from its mistakes there. One faction wouldn’t want it out during the state Republican Party Convention at the Convention Center out of fear of embarrassing party officials and the city. The other seems to want to maintain the sloppiness to get tens of millions more in loot with assertions of “it’s our turn, now” or “we are getting our share.”

Politicians like to create a façade of controls to hide the looting, but not controls to stop the looting. With the TEE center Augusta wound up with the daisy chain of “expert” controllers costing a combined $1250 per hour who controlled almost nothing and rubberstamped nearly everything. The powerfully-written construction management contract that Augusta won was turned into mush at their hands. Why?

Your Gift From the Copenhaver

Another Yogism by Berra– “It is Déjà vu all over again” – fits my 40 year odyssey out of Augusta, back, and now into this chamber. The mid 1970’s found me at the Labor Department in Augusta working to administer the old 13 county CETA employment programs. Fury erupted among the mostly black program management in Augusta that Columbia County had preselected an overwhelmingly white contingent of ineligible folks, but then came the embarrassing find that Augusta’s enrollees were mostly black ineligible folks.

A poor blind black woman with a young lad in tow came into the Program Directors’ office to see the Reverend F. Francis Cook. “This is my grandson, Jonathan, who sees about me, the best he can, but he needs one of those CETA jobs you all are handing out,” she said. Deputy Director Cook was in tears. There were no jobs left for the eligible and deserving grandson. He got crowded out by black politics. F. Francis Cook made sure we quit running a program for cronies, to make room for his people and for ALL people.

Yes, you can use the system perfected by the last administration to loot the people and discriminatingly spread $millions but “They did it and we are too!” makes a twisted concept of equal protection, while hurting the wrong people -people in your community.

What happened over the last two weeks destroyed confidence that this commission desires the promised transparency and reform. Choose another fork, one of real reform; this one is a dead end for Augusta.

Thank you.

Here is the video

Cooking Sinergy on Reynolds Street

Some like to use the phrase “God Don’t Like Ugly” to describe situations where extreme karma erupt, but isn’t it more apt that both God and Satan have senses of humor when mortal humans gore their own ox?

Readers will see the title and immediately think “Synergy isn’t spelled that way!” Correct they are. Synergy is the creation of a whole that is greater than the simple sum of its parts. “Sinergy” is creation of an offense that is greater than the simple sum of its ingredients. “Sinergy” has gotten cooked up in heaping batches in a Reynolds Street kitchen in the Augusta Convention Center.

After the management at Augusta-based Morris Communications decided to go all-in cheerleading their TEE Center caper, which saw a Morris Communications affiliated company awarded with the management agreement to operate that now-infamous convention center, they failed to warn their local government reporters about the legal minefield lying in wait. Hundreds of pages of Uniform Commercial Code filings, easements and cross-easements, and the existing Conference Center operating agreement directly were impacted by the construction of the TEE Center. Poor reporters hadn’t the time or expertise to read the huge volumes required to avoid embarrassing blunders.

Sinergy struck reporter Susan McCord hard, when she published an expose about Augusta Commissioner Alvin Mason, prominently focused upon the number $1500, which was reportedly the amount of each of the campaign contributions made to Mason and fellow commissioner Corey Johnson by Augusta contractor Heery International in 2009.

$1500.

Whether it came through divine or demonic device is uncertain, but $1500 is the cost born by Augusta to refurbish existing kitchen equipment found in the TEE Center invoicing. According to the legalese in the documents recorded in the Office of the Augusta Richmond County Superior Court Clerk the equipment items were likely the asset of Augusta Riverfront LLC, the Morris affiliate. Under the ongoing 50 year Conference Center agreement, extended by the TEE Center agreement, kitchen equipment was the responsibility of the Augusta Riverfront entity, therefore any “existing” kitchen equipment in the complex would not have been the property of Augusta.

Did Morris’ newspaper slam Commissioner Mason for a $1500 ethical lapse when their affiliate enjoyed exactly $1500 Augusta funds to rebuild its equipment?

In Augusta a $1500 kettle whistles steam that Al Mason’s $1500 pot is black and the laughing imps who once hid out in the press room found their sinergy brewing in the $2 million taxpayer funded kitchen on Reynolds Street.

In the words of Bea Arthur……

When this writer spoke before the Augusta Commission against the SPLOST vote back in April, a heartfelt recommendation was expressed to have a “Truth Commission” empaneled in Augusta. South Africa found greater peace after Bishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela insisted on holding Truth Commissions after apartheid ended. Only when Augusta’s media giant comes to the table in a spirit of truth toward all communities and all people in your city will Augusta’s apartheid end.

That is how it looks from up here in the Lincoln County pine woods across the lake.

AG

Taking over the Augusta Commission Chamber

In early 2012, Augusta faced a dilemma. It had constructed a $15 million parking deck that it did not own. Local activists with the Augusta Today facebook group and CityStink.net had alerted the media when their research of real estate titles at the Clerk of Court’s office showed that the land was not owned by the city.

Cost recovery analyst Al Gray and Brad Owens took over the commission chambers to address the crowd and insist upon rights of audit, in what was seen as a one-sided contract.

Mission “Impossible” In a Slum

Originally posted September 18, 2013

The Augusta City Commission on Tuesday, September 17, 2013 heard the following raucous presentation, followed by a heated discussion. Full text follows the video.

 

Mayor Copenhaver and Commissioners:

Thank you for allowing me to speak tonight in opposition to designating the Downtown Business District a SLUM.

When words no longer are required to carry their true meaning and devolve into meaning the opposite, all men and women should shudder, for in that immoral state what is the meaning of right and wrong?

Let’s look to the Department of Community Affairs Guideline on how to do Urban Redevelopment in Georgia. It cautions against this Commission surrendering all of its Redevelopment Powers to an Authority, but this resolution breathes life back into a body possessive of those powers. It says there needs to be public and private input gone missing in these proceedings. It says beware conflicts if you have a DDA. It says the redevelopment district can be a single parcel, not requiring over 1000 of them in 595 acres. It cautions on the use the broadened power of eminent domain and the power to single out individual landowners for reward or punishment. It says the redevelopment plan is easily changed so you can start with a small district to fund the municipal building with tax exempt bonds, then expand it. These DCA guidelines have neither been followed nor met in myriad ways.

When you allow words to lose meaning, you allow debate over their meaning to obscure that which is a real public menace. The people rightfully fear monsters hatched in the dark will go on to feast – on them – in the dark. The DCA guidelines shine light on the process, so why not insist that they be met?

Questions about this resolution are legion. Is it responsible to fund unlimited debt service with SPLOST revenues that have not been approved yet? Won’t the net result force funds from 99.8% of the rest of Richmond County into this district? Can’t a much smaller Opportunity Zone be created? Can you recapture powers of the Urban Redevelopment Agency? What is afoot with using the very different Redevelopment Powers Act in a coterminous TAD that is so secretive?

Pictures are said to be worth a 1000 words and the Mayor will hold me to about 550, so let me conclude with 2 pictures. Here you see me with my most important client, my mother.

She was confronted with a county overlay zone that singled her property out for restrictions that would have gutted the value of her commercial site. One commissioner, 2 planning commissioners and staff said it was a DONE DEAL with one opining that her land should be acquired by the county for a park. She looked to be all alone until other property owners were awakened.

The people of Augusta are in similar peril. Arrogance around property rights exhibits ignorance of how deep and wide the concepts of fairness and “do unto others” hold our world together. Here you see how the Communist Chinese had to yield to it when elderly homeowners refused to surrender to the government.

The ability under Augusta’s charter to pass any outrage at any time with 6 votes coupled with this SLUM resolution would leave them with no hope.

Flush “SLUM” and let’s banish the much over-used word “Impossible” from describing Augusta. Let’s do it now, do it with conviction and do it together.  Nothing is impossible to those who demand honor instead of a SLUM.

 

Augusta Commission Asked to Chill Out

by Al M. Gray

Originally posted September 8, 2013

The Controversial Urban Redevelopment program is on the Augusta Commission Public Services Committee agenda for Monday September 9, 2013, but something else is attention-getting.  It was the request to approve the addition of a chiller to the Convention/Tee Center Chiller Plant. This item might not normally draw a commissioner’s attention, since the Marriott is said to be paying for it.

 

Let’s not beat around the bush. There are some pretty serious questions, old and new, that this request summons forth. We will begin with the new questions and end with the old questions.

 

Issue One: Cost Responsibility for Additional Chiller Space and Piping

 

 The Public Service Committee Meeting Item Coversheet contains this statement:

 

During the design of the TEE Center project, the chiller plant

 

was designed for future expansion. All piping stub outs and

 

additional space has been provided to add two additional chillers

 

and cooling towers.

 

 

 

Some of this space and capacity is now proposed for use in service of the Conference Center. However, the Conference Center CORE agreement, which I understand remained in place when the Tee/Convention Center was authorized, seems to place responsibility for Conference Center HVAC Equipment on Marriott owner Augusta Riverfront LLC. Did Augusta pay for the “additional space” and the piping stub outs under the Convention/Tee Center Contract?  If so, where did the contractual responsibility shift to Augusta?

 

Issue Two:  Effects of Chiller Deletions on Convention/Tee Center Construction/ Mechanical Contracts

 

The attachment to the Chiller Agenda Item is a letter from Morris Communications Corporate Architect Robert Kuhar dated August 19, 2013 discussing the expansion of the chiller plant. It contains this statement:

 

….. the central plant was a part of the design very early on in the project..

 

however due to budget constraints, it was not fully implemented. Addition space was

 

provided for expansion of the system.

 

 

“Not fully implemented” suggests partial implementation. How much of the design providing additional capacity and expansion to include the Marriotts and Conference center was implemented? Also, since the Convention/Tee Center project was built on a fast track basis on partially complete design, did all of the non-Augusta Convention/Tee costs get deleted from the contractor’s and mechanical contractor’s scope of work when the earlier design was deleted? This writer has seen large overpayments occur in similar circumstances.

 

Issue Three:  Chiller Redundancy and Cost Responsibility

 

Within the attachment to the Chiller Agenda Item, appears this:

 

A central chiller plant cools the new Convention Center with cooling towers locate d on

 

the roof.• Two chillers provide 400 tons of cooling each. There is a total of 800 tons of cooling

 

available. • When fully occupied during the warmest time of the year the current Conference Center requires approximately 400 tons of cooling.• There is 100% redundancy provided by the second chiller.

 

 

If this redundancy is to cover the Conference Center, shouldn’t that portion of the capital expenditure have been born by the Manager, Augusta Riverfront LLC, if the existing Conference Center Agreement still governed?

 

Issue Four:  Convention versus Marriott and Conference Center Separate Metering Status

 

In the supporting memo from Robert Kuhar, Corporate Architect of Morris Communications, dates August 19,2013 and with the subject line Centralized Cooling Concept there is this:

 

…the Marriott and Conference center could be metered by either flow meters or

 

BTU meters to determine cost of operation between the different facilities

 

 

 

This brings an old matter back up. You might recall that when Augusta citizen activist Lori Davis requested to see the electrical single line diagrams that will show how power is being distributed between The Conference Center, the Convention Center and the Marriott, she was rebuffed under the guise of “security.” Wasn’t there supposed to be separate metering of utilities to segregate Convention/Tee Center costs , from Marriott and Conference Center Costs? Where does this stand? Can you, the public, or this writer now see the documents and audit trail for these costs?

 

Issue Five:   Conference Center and old Radisson Hotel versus the 8 Air Turn Marriott standard

 

On August 17, 2012, activist Lori Davis submitted a Georgia Open Records Act Request inquiring into the design of the Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning systems for the existing Marriott/Conference Center before integration with the Convention/ Tee Center HVAC system. The response she received was a CD with empty file directories. The purpose for the inquiry was to evaluate the $399,000 change order to the smoke handling system, which was supposedly based upon a Marriott requirement for 8 air turns instead of the 2.5 designed. Since the Conference Center and Marriott hotel date back to 1999 (at that time the first building was a Radisson), we wondered whether those older buildings themselves met the 8 air turn requirement. Our next question, had that one met a negative response, would have been to ask why the new Marriott standard would apply to the Tee/Convention Center HVAC, which doesn’t appear to feed directly into either Marriott hotel, but into the Conference Center.  Also, any upgrade of the Conference Center to 8 air turns would have had to receive Augusta’s approval.

 

A final reason that might have brought responsibility for that $399,000 change order cost into question was that the governing Conference Center CORE agreement says this:

 

Section 7.2 HVAC Operations. Insofar as certain of the Improvements of the Parties shall be

 

internally connected through common conidors (sic)and passageways, Developer, in operating the air conditioning and heating system for the Hotels and the Expanded Conference Center, shall operate such systems in a manner which will not unduly drain heat, ventilation or air conditioning from the Improvements of any other Party.

 

 

 

Doesn’t this imply that the Tee/Convention HVAC would stand alone, with no requirement to meet the higher Marriott standard of 8 air turns? Was the $399,000 change order a necessary Augusta cost, given the authoritative documents? The Augusta Commission settled the construction contract issue by approving the change order, but did that settle the issue between the partners?

 

 

Issue 6: Morris Communications Employee Involvement

 

 

Is the involvement of a Morris Communications Executive indicative that Morris employees are the members of Convention/Tee management firm Augusta Convention Center Management LLC? What role does the corporate architect play in the management of these facilities?

 

 

Update: The Public Service Committee of the Augusta Commission voted to approve the installation of the additional chillers and related piping in its September 9, 2013 meeting. In the meeting Paul Simon of the Augusta Marriott asserted that there is separate metering of utilities between that which Augusta pays and that which the Augusta Marriott and manager Augusta Riverftont LLC  absorbs.

Augusta’s administration continues to hold the as-built drawings that would confirm the existence and contractual correctness of the separate metering. A review of the HVAC design must be the subject of a follow-up Georgia Open Records Act request to answer the questions as to whether the HVAC system design for the Convention/Tee center followed contractual divisions of responsibility between the Manager and the owner, the City of Augusta.

-AG