It may be some time before questions surrounding invoices turned in by Nashville’s largest public relations firm for its work on the proposed convention center project get answered.
Metro Council held a public discussion of the invoices on Monday and key players were on hand to answer a series of questions. The senior partners at the public relations firm McNeely, Pigott & Fox all attended the meeting, just hours after stepping down from the communications contract that started the firestorm.
District 6 Councilman Mike Jameson, who on Aug. 6 was the first official to call for the independent audit and a public meeting on the issue, pressed MP&F executives on whether they lobbied Council members earlier this year when land acquisition legislation was being considered. McNeely, Pigott & Fox partner Mike Pigott denied the claim adamantly.
MDHA Director Phil Ryan also answered questions, although his answer was often met with a promise to get back to Council members at a later date.
District 23 Councilwoman Emily Evans pressed Ryan on MDHA’s procurement practices and questioned whether the agency was in the wrong by creating open-ended contracts after contractors had exceeded the maximum caps set out in the original deals. Besides the communications contract, MDHA has also set new caps for the financial advising, hotel consulting and building management contracts.
Metro Finance Director Richard Riebeling began the meeting by apologizing for not providing more oversight to invoices turned into the Metro Development and Housing Agency by the public relations firm.
In fact, the meeting was mostly uneventful, apart from a somewhat heated exchange between Riebeling and District 22 Councilman Eric Crafton.
At-large Councilman Ronnie Steine said the meeting was unnecessary since many of the logical steps to remedy the situation created by the PR firm billing Metro for $458,000 had already been taken.
Steine admitted he was concerned by the fact the original communications contract was for just $75,000, but he said Council members who asked the most questions were merely against the convention center project and had a political ax to grind.
“What we’re doing in there is we’re grinding an ax into a situation in which the remedies are already in place,” Steine said.
Earlier in the day, Mayor Karl Dean called for an independent audit of the invoices pertaining to communications work in addition to other invoices turned in for predevelopment work for Music City Center. Apart from McNeely, Pigott & Fox resigning, Council will also consider at its meeting tonight a resolution to create a new Metro board to oversee development of the convention center.
“If you take every single question and word as being correct, and I’m not saying they are, what would you do to fix the situation?” Steine asked. “The PR firm would quit — they did. You would have an independent audit, which has been called for. And third, you would put in place a better group that is more responsive, more transparent and will create more information for the Council.
“So all those fixes are there before us, and this is sort of the last gasp of, ‘Let’s see if we can take this ax and grind it further through people’s skulls on their way out the door.’”
Crafton began the meeting with a long-winded speech in which he said Metro ought to use general obligation bonds to finance the $635 million project. During his speech, Riebeling shook his head in disagreement, which caused Crafton to snap.
At-large Councilman Tim Garrett, who chaired the open discussion, was able to restore order.
No time frame has been set for beginning the independent audit, although the mayor’s office has indicated it would begin in the near future. So far MDHA has spent $16 million on predevelopment activities for Music City Center. The funds come from tourism taxes and fees created by Council last year.
Council also approved $75 million in tourism taxes for MDHA to begin land acquisition in SoBro, which is the proposed site for the project.
Riebeling said a financing package for the convention center will be in front of Council in the coming months.