District 17 Councilman Colby Sledge tells Ethics Commission “We did not discuss the details of the RFQ.” Behind him Devinder Sandhu looks on skeptically.

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN – District 17 Councilman Colby Sledge told the Metro Board of Ethical Conduct last week that he met with the Cloud Hill Partners in the Mayor’s office in late 2015, more than a year before the city put Fort Negley out to bid.

“In late 2015 I was called into a meeting with the mayor’s administration and various department heads regarding a proposal from members of what became the Cloud Hill team. The Cloud Hill team discussed their proposal how the Greer Stadium property could be re-developed,” Sledge testified.

Tommy Lynch, former head of parks, attended that meeting that was led by Rich Riebeling, Chief Operating Officer (COO). Mayor Barry put in a brief appearance.

Sledge testified that Riebeling was the liaison between Metro and developers regarding Fort Negley.

Sledge also told the ethics commission that he met with the Cloud Hill development team a second time prior to the city’s release of the Request for Quotes (RFQ) in February 2017.

The Tennessean reported that, according to T Bone Burnett, Sledge was instrumental in giving him advice on the Greer redevelopment process before the city formally opened bidding.

“Colby, it seems to me, has been in control of the thing from the beginning,” Burnett said.  He qualified that remark by adding that Sledge heard from “all the different voices”.  However, Nashville Adventure Park, which lost the bid to the Cloud Hill Partners Group and is suing the city, claims Sledge refused to meet with them about their plan for the Fort Negley property.

Sledge told the ethics panel that he did meet with the Adventure Park, Inc. developer, Devinder Sandhu, about Sandhu’s original plan to develop Greer Stadium as a soccer facility. But he said he avoided Sandhu during the RFQ process when Sandhu’s team proposed a much bigger project to compete with Cloud Hill.

Stacking the Deck

“During the bid process I was asked for recommendations for names of individuals who should be included as part of the committee that would evaluate the submissions in response to the RFQ,” Colby told the ethics panel.

Sledge said he recommended Sarah Case from the Wedgewood-Houston Neighborhood Association, Pastor John Faison of the Watson Grove Baptist Church, and Clay Bailey, President of Friends of Fort Negley.

In an email, former Purchasing Agent Jeff Gossage said he appointed the seven members of the judging panel, which normally have 3-5 members. The other four judges of the Fort Negley RFQ were: Tommy Lynch, former Head of Parks, Doug Sloan from Metro Planning, Zach Kelley from Finance, and Audra Ladd, Barry’s Manager of Small Business/Creative Economy.

“The Purchasing Agent appoints the evaluation team but the names are recommended by multiple key stakeholders,” Gossage wrote. However, the only people who recommended candidates who became judges were Colby Sledge and Rich Riebeling, Barry’s COO.

The Tribune has learned that Zach Kelley, from the Office of the Director of Finance, also had a role in selecting the judges. (see emails) Kelley responded to an email from Terri Troup, the contracts officer on the Fort Negley RFQ.

Kelley told told her to replace Erin Williams, Director of Constituent Response with Audra Ladd, another staffer from the Mayor’s office. Last week Kelley said he didn’t remember anyone telling him to switch Williams for Ladd.

In the internal Finance Department email, Kelley also noted: “Sarah Case from the Wedgewood-Houston Neighborhood Association should be on here as well, per Rich and CM Sledge.” The “Rich” is Barry’s COO, Rich Riebeling,

“You can’t very well be an independent and impartial judge if you’ve been involved in picking the judges,” said Sandhu.

Dealing the Cards

Barry spokesman Sean Braisted told the Tribune that developing Fort Negley was a group decision made by the Mayor, Councilman Sledge, Parks, and others. Those “others” did not include Friends of Fort Negley, the Tennessee Preservation Trust, and the NAACP, all of which oppose turning over an historic site on public land to a private developer.

As the Tribune previously reported, Sandhu has criticized the award to Cloud Hill Partners for a lack of transparency. He claims Cloud Hill was given preferential treatment. At least one of the judges has condemned the judging process.

Braisted said his boss met with several developers who bid on the project, including Devinder Sandhu, and that she gave Cloud Hill no special treatment.

However, Bert Mathews, who is the developer for the Cloud Hill proposal, was a campaign supporter of Megan Barry and helped her raise $300,000 for her run-off election against David Fox in August 2015. Barry’s staff met with Cloud Hill and Colby Sledge shortly after she took office. About a year and a half later, Bert Mathews was awarded the bid.

Getting Called Out

Sledge’s testimony before the ethics commission supports Sandhu’s contention that Cloud Hill Partners had an inside track on the contract. Did the Barry administration exert undue pressure on the judging? Given Kelley’s involvement in selecting the panel of judges, it certainly raises the possibility.

For Sandhu to win his lawsuit in Chancery Court, he will have to prove collusion on the part of the Mayor, her staff, and city employees like Gossage, Kelley, and Sloan who pushed, along with Colby Sledge, to award the development contract to the Cloud Hill Partner group.

That will be no easy task. City officials say they handled the bidding for the Fort Negley RFQ no differently than the way they normally handle city contracts. Sandhu will have to convince a judge not only that the city’s handling of the Fort Negley RFQ was unfair to him but also that the “normal” way the city awards contracts is discriminatory and corrupted by insiders with political influence.

Editor’s note: The Tribune contacted Councilman Colby Sledge, COO Rich Riebeling, Planning Director Doug Sloan, and Audra Ladd, Barry’s Small Business Manager to confirm details for this story. None of them responded by press time.

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