Company drops out of Bull Street study

cleblanc@thestate.comFebruary 7, 2014 

— A consulting company tapped by the city of Columbia to conduct a cost/benefit analysis of the proposed Bull Street neighborhood has withdrawn from the job amid questions of propriety because the company is owned by the law firm that employs the mayor.

Parker Poe Consulting dropped its agreement with the city to conduct the study for free, Will Thomas, the managing partner of the Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein law firm, said Friday.

Mayor Steve Benjamin, an attorney, is a special counsel, not a partner, at the law firm. Neither he nor City Council voted on the selection of Parker Poe consultant Mark Simmons. Simmons was hired by a city staffer.

Benjamin said there is no question about the appropriateness in retaining the consulting firm because he did not cast a vote. He said he would have recused himself had there been a vote.

“I’m trying to figure out what the criticism is other than (it’s) from people trying to undo Bull Street and the multi-use stadium,” Benjamin said.

There is no more of a conflict of interest involving Parker Poe than there was when Nexsen Pruet and the McNair law firms did work for the city while Bob Coble and Frannie Heizer, who worked at the firms, respectively, were on council, Benjamin said.

Parker Poe Consulting is a wholly owned subsidiary of the law firm.

Simmons’ one paragraph withdrawal letter, dated Feb. 6, to city manager Teresa Wilson said, “ ... we believe the city is being unduly criticized over our firm’s involvement in the analysis.”

Simmons was hired by Columbia’s economic development director, and City Council was well aware of the ties between the law firm and Benjamin, Wilson said in an interview Friday. She said she cannot recall anyone on council raising questions of propriety.

“Nobody made an issue out of it until the last couple of days,” she said, referring to emails and inquiries from residents going to her as well as to The State newspaper. Wilson said the city attorney’s office was aware of the consulting company’s connection to the law firm and it did not object.

The consulting arm has been working with the city on an as-needed basis since January, Wilson and economic development director Wayne Gregory said. They could make the hire because council has authorized the city manager to spend up to $49,999 without a vote of council.

Simmons’ task was not to analyze the benefits and risks of a controversial minor-league baseball stadium but to assess the income for the city as well as the costs in public utilities for the private, 165-acre site where the neighborhood is to be built, Wilson and Gregory said.

Simmons’ analysis was to include a review of an economic impact study released last summer by the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, she said.

The consulting company has worked with the city on projects of joint interest with Richland County, Wilson and Gregory said. Teaming with the county is a cost-saving move, they said.

Simmons said he has not been involved in any Richland County projects. His only connection with the city would have been the analysis of public investment in the sprawling neighborhood project.

The city’s chief financial officer, Jeff Palen, said the law firm has represented underwriters on Columbia water and sewer bond sales as recently as last fall.

The firm’s managing partner, Thomas, said Parker Poe has been involved in legal work with Columbia even before Benjamin was elected.

Benjamin said he has never done work for the consulting firm.

Parker Poe Consulting, though a subsidiary of the law firm, is listed as a limited liability corporation on the law firm’s website.

The law firm has about 20 attorneys in Columbia as well as offices in Charleston, Spartanburg, Charlotte, Raleigh and the nation’s capital. A special counsel means Benjamin has more experience than the firm’s associates, Thomas said.

The city approached the firm about doing the cost/benefit analysis, Thomas said. That analysis will be a key factor in some council members’ decision on how many millions of dollars in public money to invest in the neighborhood as well as a year-round, multi-use ballpark with a projected price tag of $35 million to $42 million.

“We were trying to do something good for the city,” Thomas said. “We were going to do this project pro bono, at no cost to the city. I hope somebody (else) steps up to do it.”

Wilson said economic development director Gregory will try to conduct the analysis himself but is authorized to bring in private expertise if he needs it.

A number of activists in the city have been contacting City Hall, raising questions about the selection of a firm with ties to the mayor – council’s most outspoken advocate for a city-built stadium.

Critics argue the selection puts a cloud over the objectivity of such an important study.

Bob Liming, an opponent of a publicly funded ballpark, said “Maybe Mr. Simmons and Mayor Steve can lead our City Council in a rendition of ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ when they rubberstamp the paperwork to stick city taxpayers with the multimillion bill for Benjamin’s Field of Nightmares.”

Liming said he worried about a fair study if the company chosen to conduct it is connected to the firm that pays Benjamin.

Walda Wildman, who was the treasurer of the citizens’ group that helped defeat a strong-mayor referendum in December, said the selection of the consulting company looks bad.

“It just doesn’t pass the smell test, even if it is ethical,” Wildman said.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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