Originally created 05/30/99

Column: Switch on LMI continues an old pattern 053099 - The Augusta Chronicle



(Editor's note: The author, Bonnie Ruben, is a veteran member of the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority.)

AT THE RECENT Coliseum Authority meeting when members present voted unanimously not to renew Houston-based Leisure Management International's contract to manage the Civic Center/Bell Auditorium complex, I said that LMI had made mistakes.

I was corrected by Authority colleague David Bell who said he didn't think LMI had made mistakes, but they knew exactly what they were doing. The inference of that statement, made by an intelligent attorney, was that perhaps LMI had acted in bad faith. If a company knows it has done wrong, isn't that worse than making a mistake?

Now, I know about mistakes because I made one two years ago when I was a major supporter of LMI. I thought then and now that a professional management company was the only way to get the Civic Center out of the quagmire it was in at that time. The mistake we made was in the company we picked.

IT SIMPLY HASN'T done a good job -- that's why a year ago we voted to renew the contract for one year, instead of the two years that LMI executives sought. I guess it was OK to do that then, because we had a white general manager.

Let's digress for a moment and fill in the rest of the details. The Authority was reorganized in April, 1993. I don't exactly know why, but one of the first actions taken by the new Authority was to fire then-manager Larry Rogers.

Rogers' contract was up in June of that year anyway, but rather than letting him serve out his time, he was told to get out immediately, even though he still had to be paid his last few months of salary.

Why the rush? I still don't know the answer. I voted against firing Rogers. We were all new to the Authority and as far as I could tell, Rogers had done no wrong. Moreover, the building neededsomeone in charge at least until a replacement was found. But majority rules, and since most voted "out," out he went.

THEN CAME Marilyn Garner. She didn't last long either. Certain Authority members put so much pressure on her that she just crumbled and quit -- which is exactly what they wanted. Garner also happened to be white.

Next came Wendy Oglesby, a very bright, articulate and experienced manager. She was very professional, but did some things certain members didn't like. She developed an organization chart and hired Larry Elliott, a highly qualified, experienced accountant/business manager.

Well, many of my Authority colleagues said they didn't think we needed Elliott's expertise. It was said we were spending too much money and he didn't do anything anyway. So one day when Oglesby was out of town at a meeting, the Authority met to give Elliott the ax. Oh, excuse me; they "abolished his position."

That action, along with other embarrassing things documented by Oglesby -- and are part of the public record -- soon resulted in her forced resignation. She and Elliott brought lawsuits against the Authority that resulted in cash settlements to both. No one talks about that now, but for the record they were white.

At least the Oglesby-Elliott fiasco outraged the public and demands rose to bring in private management -- a basically good idea. Two private companies applied. One, LMI, brought along one of its corporate folks who happened to be black; the other firm, Globe Facilities Management, did not. Both companies seemed equally qualified. Guess which one got the contract?

NOW WE HAVE LMI, even though certain Authority members criticized them along the way, even wanting to cut their budget big-time last year. But all that has been aired. Moving along, LMI fires Pat Cumisky as general manager, and no one says a word. Oh, yes -- he also happens to be white.

The issues here are complex and intertwined, but unfortunately they do have racial overtones because some folks are determined to make it that way.

LMI has done a lousy job. They've given us two audits that were out of balance, resulting in larger losses than were reported. The first was reason enough to dismiss them and the second was absolutely unforgivable. Sure we have hockey, and that's great, but any other management firm would have done at least the same and probably have negotiated a better contract -- and charged us less for doing it!

LMI is guilty of a dozen things of which any one would be reason enough for termination. LMI has charged us $85,000 a year for the privilege of losing more of our money than has ever been lost before. The increased revenue from hockey and our new vendor contract with Fine Host are the only revenue streams offsetting all of LMI's increased operating expenses. We now pay more in salaries and related benefits than the Civic Center-Bell complex generates in rental revenues.

SO WHAT DOES LMI do in a last-ditch attempt to hang on? Do they come to us with a sensible budget that cuts costs? Do they offer to reduce their fees? Do they have a plan to bring more entertainment to the complex other than hockey? No; their solution is bring us a black general manager. The person they brought in is not the issue. The tactic they used is! It seems LMI really does understand this market.