In the wake of a burgeoning controversy surrounding the amount of money the Metro Development and Housing Agency has spent on public relations for the proposed new convention center, Mayor Karl Dean moved to suspend Metro’s use of the firm McNeely Pigott & Fox.
Dean instructed MDHA Director Phil Ryan to suspend using McNeely Pigott & Fox until a review of invoices turned in by the PR giant could be reviewed by the Metro Department of Finance.
The mayor’s move to suspend using McNeely Pigott & Fox comes after an expose by NewsChannel5 showed MDHA had spent over $450,000 on public relations since the firm was hired in the spring of 2008. The original agreement between MDHA and McNeely Pigott & Fox capped the contract at $75,000. However, it was amended last year and the bill has continued ballooning since.
Ryan defended the amount spent on PR and said the agency underestimated how much the work would cost.
However, in a letter to Ryan on Wednesday, Dean called for the use of MP&F to be suspended until “a more prudent approach to communication on this project can be determined.”
“… I do not believe that having an open-ended contract with a vendor is a fiscally responsible approach to managing this project,” Dean’s letter stated.
Invoices turned in by McNeely Pigott and Fox showed that the firm’s efforts sometimes included soliciting support from Metro Council members for the $635 million proposed convention center.
The invoices also show that McNeely Pigott & Fox has regularly met with Dean and his top aides, sometimes providing talking points and editing speeches the mayor has delivered about Music City Center.
District 6 Metro Councilman Mike Jameson said Council did not know the extensive role McNeely Pigott & Fox would play in the project when it approved the predevelopment phase of Music City Center in February of last year.
“My understanding of what McNeely Pigott & Fox’s role would have been would be to publicize public events and provide info about the convention center to the public,” Jameson said. “It would not have been to persuade, to lobby and to influence the decision-making process at all.”
Jameson also was critical of Dean’s administration leaning so heavily on the PR firm when the mayor’s office is already equipped with advisors and a media relations team.
“Why did an administration filled with smart, capable people see the need to have weekly meetings with a PR firm to shape a strategy policy?” Jameson asked.
McNeely Pigott & Fox founding partner Mike Pigott plainly said the firm did not help write Dean’s speeches. The invoices also show that the firm did not ultimately bill MDHA for about $30,000 worth of work.
“Our meetings at the Finance Department were to update everyone on the project, review revenue collection figures and expenses, discuss upcoming projects, and to review the most effective ways to present this information to the public,” Pigott said.
Pigott went on to say his firm is "proud of the job" they've done and have "tried to work efficiently" in meeting the needs of the mayor and Council.
"We will do as the mayor asks and help any way we can with the Finance Department’s review of our work," he said. "This is the largest project in city history, and the people, the mayor and the Council have demanded sound communications."
Jameson said he was pondering asking for a public meeting to call to light McNeely Pigott & Fox’s billing practices.
In his letter to Ryan, Dean’s support for Music City Center remained unwavering, despite the latest negative publicity about the project’s management by MDHA.
“The development of Music City Center is too large of a project and too important for our city’s future economic development to allow negative perceptions or potential mistakes in its financial management.”
The funds were provided by tourism taxes and fees, including the hotel/motel tax. So far Metro has spent $16 million on the predevelopment phase of the project and allocated another $75 million for land acquisition.
"We have done that in many, many ways using just 3 percent of the overall visitor tax money spent to date," Pigott said.
The Dean administration said it will bring a financing package to Council for approval in the coming months.
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