This is What Corruption Looks Like

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Devinder Sandhu faces off with Purchasing Agent Jeff Gossage. The fate of Fort Negley may be determined in court. Photo by Peter White

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — Metro Purchasing Agent Jeff Gossage denied a protest regarding the development of Fort Negley awarded to a friend and campaign supporter of Mayor Megan Barry.

The deal is worth about $200 million and will leave only 3.6 acres of green space on the 21 acres Metro Parks wants to develop. If the Mathews Group gets a 99-year lease, the stadium will be demolished. The rest of the land will be office space, 294 residential units, and 48,350 square feet of retail space. The city may not get any of the estimated $62,000 yearly rent on the property until Mathews recoups the $7 million in construction costs. That could take until 2027.

In the meantime, there would be no indoor soccer stadium in the park, no ball fields with lighting for night games, Fort Negley would not be restored, and there would be no new site for the Farmer’s Market.

Bert Mathews’ group, called the St Cloud Partnership, scored 96 out of 100 points from a panel of seven judges. The St Cloud proposal, 175 pages, scored more than any other for diversity, and about $20 million would go to minority, small, or women-owned businesses.

In forms filed with the city, all of the subcontractors wrote “TBD” (to be determined) in the space for how much business they would get from the prime contractor, Bert Mathews.

As the Tribune has previously reported there is a pattern in the Purchasing Department and the Business Assistance Office (BAO), which work together, of awarding contracts to prime contractors who stiff their subcontractors after using minority firms to win contracts with the city.

By way of contrast, the Nashville Adventure Park proposal, headed by Devinder Sandhu, who is a minority, had two African American partners, Roger Ligon of IFC Builders and Don Hardin of the Hardin Group. Both are well-respected longtime Nashville building contractors. Sandhu’s proposal would have added 16.2 acres of green space to Fort Negley more than double the green space in the winning proposal.

The Adventure Park Proposal got 2 points for diversity. The Matthews Company, an all-white firm with no minority partners, scored 3 out of 5 points, the highest score in that category of all five finalists.

Sandhu, a Sikh born in Kenya but an American citizen, told Gossage at the protest hearing he thought the judging was unfair and asked him how Mathews could have outpointed him in diversity. Gossage let Bryan Gleason answer the question. Gleason is manager of the BAO, which is supposed to help minority contractors.

“The company ownership has nothing to do with the diversity plan and how that is scored,” Gleason said. “The status of the prime does not matter,” he added.

The judges awarded Sandhu no points for being a minority prime contractor. The Tribune asked Gleason via email for the criteria judges used to evaluate diversity and how the judges each voted in that category. He did not respond by press time.

The St Cloud Partnership proposal, headed by Mathews, did not show the 525 surface parking spaces it proposes. Instead, in an artist’s rendering, it showed parking for 250 cars on two acres in three lots. According to one of Sandhu’s partners, William Krantz, about 4.5 acres would be needed to create 525 spaces.  The Mathews site plan shows 8 acres of green space. It’s actually closer to four acres.

In addition, the Mathews plan has a parking lot for 122 cars on property that does not belong to the city. That land would have to be purchased from the owner, Robert Green. The purchase price was not included in the St Cloud Partnership financial plan.

The collective experience of the Cloud Hill partners is considerable and impressive.

However, in awarding the project to Mathews in May, the Finance Department entered into contract negotiations with a business group that did not legally exist.

Clayton Atkinson, a partner in the Mathews Group, did not register the Cloud Hill Partnership with state officials until June 23, the day after Sandhu’s protest hearing. Later, if the city resumes contract negotiations with Mathews, they will at least be legal. They are currently on hold until Sandhu’s protest is resolved.

“This looks like an opportunity awarded to an insider and there is very little if any minority participation in the entire project. It’s Nashville business as usual. Minorities and outsiders are not welcome,” said Alex Coure, a longtime critic of the city’s treatment of minority contractors.

Sandhu says he is not sour grapes but is protesting the award to the Mathews Group because the selection process was unfair.  He said his proposal and the One City group addressed the requirements of the RFQ better than Mathews. “I thought the One City proposal was even better than ours,” he told the Procurement Board.

Sandhu asked Gossage to explain how the actual votes by each judge resulted in “consensus” scores in the final evaluations. Gossage did not answer him. Sandhu’s proposal placed a distant fourth with 70 points.

Gossage did not answer most of the questions Sandhu put to him. Gossage either ignored them or said they did not fall within the purview of his department. Gossage is leaving the Finance Department to work for Metro schools on July 3.

Before the protest hearing began last Thursday, Gossage apologized to the crowded conference room. “I don’t see well because I haven’t had my cataract surgery which is next week. And I don’t hear well, so please speak up so I can hear and respond to you,” he said.

“The gossip going around is that the whole process was flawed,” said Chris Cotton, a board member of the Friends of Fort Negley.

Judging panels for city contracts are usually limited to five members. Gossage picked seven people to review the Fort Negley proposals. Among them were

Tommy Lynch, who recently retired as Director of Parks, and Clay Bailey from Friends of Fort Negley. Three others were from Planning, the Mayor’s office, and the Finance Department.

The remaining two judges were Sarah Case of the Wedgewood/Houston Neighborhood Association and Pastor John Faison, both recommended by Councilman Colby Sledge. He is on record in support of developing the old Greer Stadium site. Not a single tree-hugger amongst the lot.

The only judge with conservationist credentials was Lynch and it was his department along with Doug Sloan, Head of Planning, who initiated the RFQ to develop the Greer Stadium site in the first place.

Park advocates say too many cooks, all of them working from a pro-development recipe, spoiled the broth.

“Yes, there is an old stadium on the property but it’s park land,“ says Cotton. “The master plan for parks calls for the purchase of an additional 4500 acres for parks, so why are we going to give public land over to private development? That’s our issue. Why shouldn’t it remain a park? And why shouldn’t there have been a parks-only option?” he asked.

Sandhu can appeal to the procurement appeals board. If they deny his complaints, as seems likely, the future of Fort Negley may ultimately be decided by a Chancellery Court judge.

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