By Peter White
NASHVILLE, TN –Councilman Colby Sledge was deeply involved in the Fort Negley development deal and right after the plan he pushed was picked to do a $200 million facelift of Greer Stadium, the Cloud Hill Partnership hired his public relations firm to promote the project.
That is raising questions not only about a conflict of interest but also about influence peddling and politics in awarding lucrative city contracts.
One of the first things McNeely Pigott & Fox did for their new clients was to thank Colby Sledge for five years of faithful service and then quietly show him the door.
He says he left on his own accord.
“I left to start my own company, Sledge Strategies. I really enjoyed MP&F, but I wanted to do some things on my own and had been thinking about my next career move for several months.” Sledge told the Tribune.
Sledge got caught between his council seat and his day job. He says he never worked on the Cloud Hill account at MP&F or had access to the files. “MP&F set up very strict firewalls on Metro-related work,” Sledge said.
Although he denied it, Channel 4’s Nancy Amons ran a story last week suggesting Sledge had a conflict of interest because he was still working at MP&F when Cloud Hill became his firm’s client.
The Metro Finance Department notified the Mathews Company of its intent to award the project to them on May 26. MP&F met with the Cloud Hill team on Wednesday, May 31, and a contract between Cloud Hill and MP&F began June 1. Sledge didn’t leave his job at MP&F until June 20. That’s an overlap of three weeks.
Sledge says that because of the firewall on city business at MP&F there was no conflict of interest. Fort Negley is located in Colby Sledge’s district and he has made no secret of his support for the Cloud Hill project. As a councilman, Sledge had no firewall to keep him safe once he crossed over the line from a big time development booster to influence-peddling politician.
The Tribune has learned Sledge submitted the names of three people to Purchasing Agent Jeff Gossage, who appointed all three to the panel of seven judges who gave the Mathews Group the highest score among five finalists. Gossage has since left the Finance Department.
Devinder Sandhu, the prime contractor of the Adventure Park plan, says the judging was unfair. He won’t say it publicly but he thinks the fix was in to give the contract to the Mathews Group from the very beginning.
The principals in the Cloud Hill Partnership are Bert Mathews, Tom Middleton and T Bone Burnett. There are twelve other partners including the landscape architects, Hawkins Partners, Inc.
Hawkins and MP&F are on the Metro Parks Master Plan Consultant Team. Colby Sledge is on the Greenway Commission. All these players including some who bid but did not win the project know Mayor Barry and some have met with her about the Fort Negley project.
The Hawkins landscape firm had a hand in two proposals. So did a woman-owned business, the Wilmot Group, which does sustainability planning. Double-dipping is not against the RFQ rules set by the Procurement Board.
Prominent developers, designers, and financiers are an incestuous group who make campaign contributions, hold prominent civic positions, and their business activities are inextricably connected to others, like themselves, who move in the right circles. It’s the way things are done here and it’s been that way for generations.
If you’re in with the in crowd, the way the city does business is just fine. If you’re not, the city is a closed shop when it comes to fairness and transparency about the way Nashville conducts its business
“The judging didn’t make sense to me when I finished 4th out of 5 in diversity when I was the only minority who submitted,” says Sandhu.
Sandhu, an engineer, said the judges gave very specific scores like 71.50 or 92.25.
He asked Purchasing Agent Jeff Gossage at the protest meeting how such specific numbers could emerge from such a subjective judging process. Gossage didn’t answer him.
Sandhu noted that the Mathews Company scored 30 points—a perfect score—in financial considerations. However the judges’ written notation said the project “appears to be fully funded”.
“That’s not a precise definition of fully funded,” says Sandhu. “It’s a subjective definition. Is it fully funded or isn’t it?” Sandhu says giving Mathews a perfect score in financing is disingenuous.
“I don’t see how they can put this genie back in the bottle. I wonder if there are more deals going on behind the scenes that are even more indicative that this thing needs to be exposed,” he said.