Heery, first hired in 2003 to serve as program manager over construction projects funded by sales taxes, has garnered $9.5 million in fees to develop, promote the passage of and oversee construction of tax projects, billing for some of its services in excess of $200 an hour.
Heery and subconsultants Dukes, Edwards and Dukes and Gallop and Associates have plied commissioners with visits to Heery’s Georgia Dome skybox for Atlanta Falcons games, campaign contributions during nonelection years and other perks, all for the stated purpose of maintaining support for Heery’s contract, according to documents obtained by The Augusta Chronicle.
Commissioner Alvin Mason defended his visits to the skybox and receipt of campaign funds, which he requested, as legal under the city’s ethics code, which excludes “courtesy tickets or free admission extended to an elected official for an event” from reporting requirements.
“I don’t have to stop if I don’t want to stop,” Mason said.
After raising concerns earlier in the week about extending Heery’s contract, most commissioners reached Friday had little to say about the matter besides Commissioner Bill Fennoy, who advocated tightening the ethics ordinance after three commissioners were censured earlier this year for performing work under city contracts.
“I don’t believe any of the commissioners would knowingly violate an ethics ordinance, or violate the code of conduct,” which also warns against even the “appearance” of a conflict of interest, Fennoy said. “I just want to see as much transparency in county government as possible. I don’t want even the appearance of anything.”
Former Mayor Bob Young said he pushed for the ethics ordinance’s passage at a time when a special grand jury was exploring efforts by commissioners to secure vendors’ advertising with their cronies, vendor purchases of computers for a favorite school and other selective spending.
“Here we are, it’s déjà vu all over again,” Young said.
He said he never envisioned “courtesy tickets” to include visits to the Georgia Dome on the taxpayers’ dime.
“The intent of that section was for commissioners to go to a neighborhood alliance meeting or Red Cross dinner,” he said. “People are using the cover of that to attend sporting events in Atlanta that have no benefit to the city.”
Since the ordinance’s passage more than a decade ago, no vendor, commissioner or employee has filed a report acknowledging any gift, donation, gratuity, lobbying or other activity with the clerk of commission.
The commission recently agreed to re-examine all city contracts valued at more than $1 million, then reversed itself after seeking bids for an ambulance contract.
Commissioner Donnie Smith said Friday that he was vacationing and hadn’t studied the Heery matter further, but he expected some of his colleagues to propose a modified agreement with the firm to finish several ongoing projects before the contract terminates.
Commissioner Mary Davis said she wanted to discuss how long Heery’s last slate of projects will take to complete “and discuss if their 4 percent increase is truly justified.” The group’s decade-old contract includes annual 4 percent billing rate increases each year.
In its fee proposal up for discussion Monday, Heery seeks an additional $583,442 to complete oversight of work on a trustee dormitory at the Charles B. Webster Detention Center, $1.97 million to oversee renovations at the municipal building, $280,326 to supervise construction of a new bus maintenance facility, $162,944 to oversee installation of new hangar doors at Daniel Field, $65,146 to wrap up services at the Augusta Judicial Center and $141,979 to finalize work at the Augusta Convention Center.
Fennoy, who took office this year, said he and some colleagues have sought to hire a contract specialist to advise commissioners about whether large vendor contracts are drafted with the city’s best interest in mind.
Commissioner Bill Lockett, the occasional recipient of a Heery donation, dinner or other perk, said “those things that they’re already involved in, I would suggest that we go ahead and let them finish them,” though he’d also like all large city contracts to be re-evaluated.
Complicating the picture is the onset of planning for Augusta’s next sales tax referendum. City Administrator Fred Russell said Heery has been invaluable in helping develop project lists and might need to be replaced in that role if the contract is not renewed.
Lockett said the new transportation sales tax has made successful passage of a new sales tax less likely. Heery has typically handled building projects in Augusta, rather than transportation projects, but is in line for transportation tax funds for the Daniel Field project.