The County matched the City ’s $10,750 contribution to this year’s lobbying effort in Annapolis organized by the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce on behalf of state funding of the Downtown Hotel and Conference Center (DH&CC) project. The Chamber has contracted the hotel lobbying again with Greenwill Consulting Group LLC, which describes itself as “a highly regarded bi-partisan boutique government relations firm in Annapolis.”
Unknown amounts were contributed by the Downtown Partnership, the Tourism Council, developer Plamondon Hospitality Partners and the Chamber of Commerce itself. The Chamber of Commerce and the others decline to reveal the amount of the its lobbying effort, although they must report it to the IRS.
The County Executive Jan Gardner apparently authorized the County payment personally without referring the matter to the County Council, and without discussing it with many staff. We were first told by the county public information officer that she had checked around and that: “To the best of our knowledge, the County is not contributing any funding in this regard (to the Chamber lobbying campaign for the hotel.)
That was February 23.
We asked if she’d check with CE Gardner. At that point the request was turned into a Public Information Act filing which usually requires a response in 10 days or in special cases 30 days. After 10 days we were notified that “due to competing demands on County staff” they couldn’t get together their response but that they expected to have the information in the 30 day timeframe.
My PIA request read in part: “Any such spending by the County and correspondence on that should be public information under the Public Information Act. Under the PIA I request any county documents or records related to requests for financial support for lobbying on behalf of the downtown hotel project this legislative session. I request such documents emailed.”
This afternoon, 31 days out we got an email from a county attorney saying: “Mr. Samuel, Frederick County provided $10,750.00 to the Chamber of Commerce.”
This answers the original question about how much the County spent on lobbying for the hotel, but it doesn’t respond to the associated request for relevant documents or records.
This is the fourth year this group has lobbied for state money for the hotel project. Documents and records might reveal:
— the rationale for the continued lobbying at the expense of local taxpayers
— the prospects pitched for getting the state money
— specifics on the lobbying activity promised by Greenwill, hours, hourly rates etc.
— contributions being made by Downtown Partnership, Tourism Council, Plamondon and the Chamber
— the scale of the full lobbying effort
County contributions to the lobbying effort are sensitive politically. The County Council is split on the wisdom of the hotel project, four Councillors having voted in favor of a hotel tax increase to support the hotel, with three Council members in opposition — a narrow margin of support.
It is quite unclear how the hotel located in the City will help the County. If anything it is likely to move business away from county venues.
When the County’s support was initially being sought in 2014 and 2015 a big pitch was made by the City project manager Richard Griffin to the effect that the hotel project encompassed construction of Parking Deck 6 (PD6). Located next door to the County Board of Education offices PD6 would benefit over 200 BoE employees with newly convenient parking. In return for County participation in the hotel project the City would make over 200 spaces of the 600 total available for County employees free of charge in perpetuity.
But in January 2016 there was a crisis over a costing of the hotel project with the Forella Group cost estimators producing an estimate the total would run to $120.8m. This at a time when the City was saying total project costs (including $16m for PD6) would be $82.5m, the number used in the City-Plamondon MOU or contract, in applications for state funding, and in public advocacy materials.
Forella said PD6 costs comprised $27.7m of the $120.8m project total. So PD6 was hurriedly jettisoned bringing project costs to the more palatable $93.1m. (That $93.1m was in turn wrestled down to the present official figure of $84m on the argument that Forella had used some incorrect assumptions.)
But the dumping of PD6 also dumped the special parking deal for county employees that had been sold as a prospective dividend to the County. PD6 had all the hallmarks of a switch & bait fraud by the City on the County.
The late move last week in the State Senate to restore hotel funding could be one payoff from the lobbying. It remains to be seen how it fares outside the Senate.
ADDITION 1: One strong voice against
One strong voice is Del. Barrie Ciliberti, District 4 (Frederick and Carroll Counties and a member of the Appropriations Committee who emailed us after he received the ‘Dear Delegate’ letter:
“I share your concerns about this project. I am adamantly opposed to any tax money being appropriated to this project. The project has been repeatedly rejected by the Frederick County Delegation, the House Appropriations Committee, the Governor, the Maryland Stadium Authority, MEDCO…
“I have made my thoughts known to all parties, and especially to the Governor. I am hopeful the Senate or the Governor will remove this provision from the Capital Budget. Please note: the Governor has line item veto authority.”
ADDITION 2: The hotel boosters have managed to get $4 million into the House version of the capital budget. More chicanery! (midday Mar 28)