Originally created 09/17/99

Finance chairman disagrees with deal



First it was lobsters on a leash. Now it's trips to the beach.

The company that wined and dined Augusta officials before they voted to award it the largest contract in the city's history now is paying for Mayor Bob Young to travel to Puerto Rico next month.

Operations Management International will reimburse the city $678.40 for the airline ticket for Mr. Young to fly to San Juan for the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Urban Water Summit.

The company was awarded a five-year, multimillion dollar contract in July to manage the city's sewer plant. The company will be paid nearly $6 million the first year alone. OMI was the only firm with whom the city negotiated.

OMI also would be a strong contender for taking over the water system if it is privatized, as Mr. Young has proposed on numerous occasions.

The company's parent firm, CH2MHILL, is developing the master plan for the future of the city's water system.

Mr. Young said there is no conflict of interest involved with the trip.

"I don't see anything improper with it at all," he said.

"It's a private company. They do business with the city. I was not going to go at the expense of the taxpayers of Augusta. OMI offered to pay the expenses, and I took them up on their offer."

Commissioner Jerry Brigham said he understands Mr. Young's not wanting to travel at taxpayers' expense, but it's "a whole lot worse" to travel on a city vendor's money.

"I'd be interested in going, but I don't think I'd be looking for OMI to be paying my way, especially when it could possibly end up being billed back to the water system itself," Mr. Brigham said.

City accounting officials had a problem with Mr. Young's memo stating that OMI would reimburse him through the wastewater plant contract "per Pat Corletto, CH2MHILL," who is lead marketer for the firm in Georgia.

The city issued the check Sept. 10, but Mr. Corletto's proposal would mean the city would be paying twice for the ticket.

Finance Chairman Ulmer Bridges later directed accounting personnel to process the check, charging the mayor's contingency fund with the expense, not OMI contract funds or utility funds.

Meanwhile, Mr. Corletto is trying to distance himself from the situation.

He said he had nothing to do with OMI and that all comments regarding the matter should come from Dan Grosselle, OMI regional vice president for new projects.

"I am CH2MHILL, which is the parent company," said Mr. Corletto. "I have no decision-making capabilities for OMI. So if a ticket was bought, it would have been done by Dan Grosselle's authority, not mine."

Mr. Corletto said he didn't know why Mr. Young would have put his name on the memo other than that he is the firm's lead marketer in the state.

Mr. Grosselle said he authorized the ticket.

Mr. Bridges said his main concern is that Mr. Young's travel expenses would be hidden in the OMI contract or the utility department's budget.

"I don't have any problem with OMI reimbursing the mayor for the travel, but because our contract with OMI is cost-plus expenses, the travel expense can't be part of the cost OMI bills to the city," Mr. Bridges said.

He added that "the mayor and commissioners go on trips all the time.

"I mean it's not uncommon that the company will take them out to their sites, and show them around the plant and what they do, and they pay for the trip," Mr. Bridges said.

In January, CH2MHILL and OMI officials fed several commissioners at a dinner in Atlanta, where one of the people there said "the lobsters were so big, they needed to be on leashes."

OMI also advertised on Mayor Pro Tem Lee Beard's family-owned sports talk radio station WRDW-AM in the weeks preceding Augusta Commission's vote to negotiate only with OMI for operation of the sewer plant. The Beard family has since sold the station.

Meanwhile, Mr. Young said everything has been done in the open.

"It was all run through the city books so everybody could see it," he said. "The sneakiest thing would have been for somebody to send me an airline ticket directly and I went down there. Then you would know nothing about it."

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or sylviaco@augustachronicle.com.