At Fairgrounds “Mistakes Were Made” and City Hall Made Them

NASHVILLE, TN – It’s only a matter of time before the MLS soccer stadium contracts will be voided and put out to bid again. Whether Metro or Nashville SC will suggest another site for soccer instead of the Fairgrounds is unclear.

In court documents, Metro lawyers admitted for the first time last week that the evaluation committees for the stadium contracts were stacked with people who had a vested interest in the outcome. That is a violation of state law and the city’s Procurement rules.

“Metro, to my surprise, actually responded and admitted the only person serving on each of the three evaluation committees who was a Metro employee was Laura Womack,” said Jim Roberts, attorney for Save Our Fairgrounds, a plaintiff in a second lawsuit filed against the city in September.

Womack is Fairgrounds Executive Director and she serves at the pleasure of the Fair Commissioners Board. It has five members appointed to five-year terms by the Mayor. So far none of them have resigned over the stadium fiasco and Mayor John Cooper has not asked any of them to. A source close to Cooper says he is going to wait and just replace them when their terms are up.

On August 16, 2018, the Fair Board voted unanimously to give billionaire John Ingram 10 acres of the Fairgrounds to privately develop as a sweetener in a deal that has since gone sour.

Regarding the stadium contracts, Metro’s Purchasing Agent, Michelle Hernandez-Lane, put Womack on all three judging panels. As Metro’s legal agent, Lane signed the three award letters but she let others do the judging and select the winners.

Uncommonly, Lane also selected judges who were not Metro officials or employees and that violates Metro Ordinance, 4.08.060. And it also violates a state law, TCA 5-14-108, which prohibits a purchasing agent from delegating duties to a “private actor”.

Chief Procurement Officer Michelle Hernandez-Lane may take the fall but she was just following orders from higher ups.

The Tribune asked Lane via email to explain how that happened. She did not respond. Mayor John Cooper may end up firing her but it is clear that Lane did not cook up the soccer deal. She facilitated it. She engineered a lot of it. She conspired with others to pull it off. But she was just the piper. Someone else called the tune. The same things can be said about Jon Cooper, former head of Metro’s Legal Department, who is back at his old job as the City Council’s lawyer.

Sources say former Mayor Megan Barry and her Chief Operating Officer Rich Riebeling were pulling the strings from City Hall. When Barry resigned and David Briley took over, he did not change course but let Riebeling keep working on the MLS soccer stadium deal at the Fairgrounds.

The resulting corruption infected two independent boards, the Sports Authority and Fair Commissioners Board, as well as several Metro departments. (See Were Stadium Contracts Fixed?)

 

Richard Riebeling in Council Chambers, Oct. 2, 2017. (Photo: Lacy Atkins / courtesy of The Tennessean)

The insider soccer deal has spawned two lawsuits and Metro is likely to lose them both and have to pay for the lengthy litigation. It will cost Metro taxpayers at least $100,000, according to Roberts. None of this hurt Riebeling much. He landed a teaching gig at Vanderbilt University.

“Various administrations have been trying to kill the Fairgrounds for decades now,” said At Large Councilman Steve Glover. He said the Mayor and the City Council want to make right what has gone wrong there. He stopped short of calling the soccer stadium deal a conspiracy, just that it was very convoluted.  “We are trying to untangle the mess over there,” Glover said.

Glover thinks the Fairgrounds is a bad location for a stadium anyway because it’s sort of landlocked. “You’ve got a railroad track right there and if you think you are going to widen that road, you better think again. That’s not happening anytime soon,” he said.

“There’s so much water under the bridge,” said former Councilman Duane Dominy.

He has fought to preserve the Fairgrounds for years. In his telling, the history of attempts to get rid of the State Fair and develop the property dates back to the Bredesen administration. Rich Riebeling was Chairman of the Fair Board at the time and announced he wanted to develop the property.

In 2009 Mayor Karl Dean sent a letter to the Fair Board when the State Fair was being held. He told them that would be the last time the State Fair would be held at the Fairgrounds and that the property would be turned over to the Finance Department. The Finance Department Director under Dean was Rich Riebeling.  “Riebeling has been the person behind this for 20 years,” said Dominy.

In 2010 an estimated 5,000 Nashville residents descended on City Hall just before Christmas to denounce an attempt to get rid of the Speedway at the Fairgrounds.  Then Councilwoman Megan Barry was one of five council members who wanted it gone. Dominy and Fairgrounds supporters circulated a charter petition to preserve the Fairgrounds, including the Speedway, and it passed with 72% of the vote in August 2011.

Barry was elected mayor in September 2015 and she announced plans to put a MLS stadium at the Fairgrounds in January 2017. As her chief operating officer, Rich Riebeling pursued his obsession with developing the Fairgrounds.

Both Barry and Riebeling are now gone, as is Briley, and half the city council has been replaced. In his first press conference on his first day as Mayor, Cooper said he would get to the bottom of what happened at the Fairgrounds and make an announcement by the end of the week. That was a month ago. He’s been busy, according to his press office.

Flea market vendors selling their wares at the Nashville Fairgrounds. Nashville is one of the top ten flea markets in the U.S. in numbers of vendors.

 

The longer he waits to settle the controversy, Cooper risks alienating two important constituencies: soccer fans who want a stadium and flea market vendors who don’t want it built at the Fairgrounds.  When he was on the City Council Cooper offered a solution: just build the soccer stadium next to the Titans stadium. (See Build it Downtown)

What’s he waiting for?

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