City Attorney Saundra Nickols has written denying a request for a City consultant’s analysis of sites for the proposed downtown hotel conducted in 2013/2014. In advocacy Richard Griffin the City’s hotel project director has repeatedly cited the outside expertise on which the City’s choice of sites for the hotel was based, and referred to the work of City-hired consultants Pinnacle/OPX and Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL). The Pinnacle/OPX report was long ago made public and is downloadable on the hotel project page of the City Department of Economic Development website, but the JLL work has not been released.
It was most recently referenced in City/landowner/developer submissions to the local
Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) in case HPC17-490 seeking that Commission’s acquiescence in demolition of the Birely Tannery building on the site selected by the City for the proposed downtown hotel. Jim Mills of Bates Architects in a Memorandum dated June 15, 2017 included as part of the City/landowner/developer HPC submissions for demolition approval noted OPX work on site selection, adding: “JLL also conducted a comprehensive criterion based analysis of the (potential) sites.”
Given the controversy surrounding the City’s choice of site and frequent claims by City officials that JLL analysis favored the chosen site there is, surely, a strong public interest in access to the detail of JLL’s findings. City taxpayers put up more than $300,000 for JLL’s consulting work on the City-sponsored hotel.
In addition the JLL analysis is of interest to the City Historic Preservation Commission and the Maryland Historical Trust, the state preservation regulator — agencies being asked to weigh the development merits of the hotel site against losses from demolition of a historic site and building in a designated historic district.
Earlier informal requests for a copy of JLL analysis of the hotel sites came to nothing. But City officials kept citing it, so I filed the Public Information Act request June 27. In a letter dated August 9 (arrived by mail today August 14) Saundra Nickols, City Attorney denies the request as follows:
“Please be advised that the information you requested was prepared by an outside consultant to be used by the City to assist with internal decision making. The document is covered by the deliberative process privilege and protected from disclosure by GP par 4-344 as an inter-agency memorandum. The City finds that disclosure would be contrary to the public interest and discourage full and frank communications.”
The City is very quick to publish consultant reports that support its position on the hotel project but it has a history of denying or delaying release of materials that provide less fulsome support. In this case you have to suspect that JLL pointed out problems with the chosen site, problems the City and the favored landowner and developer would prefer were not publicized when it is seeking permits from City and State authorities.
JLL may even have advised against the site!
BACKGROUND NOTE: City sponsorship of hotels is unusual. The overwhelming majority of hotels in the United States and around the world are the product of investor initiative — investors choosing a site, designing a hotel that they judge meets lodging needs, and ponying up the money as risk capital. The Frederick project is extraordinary in that City government officials specified the desired features and size of the hotel, chose sites, conducted a purported ‘competed procurement’ (RFP14-J) and chose a landowner/developer combination whose hotel is to be about 37% funded with of public money ($31m out of $84m according to the latest official #s.)
ADDITION: response to the City Attorney:
The City’s denial of access to the Jones Lang Lasalle (JLL) analysis of hotel sites as detailed in your latter dated August 9, is unacceptable. Hotel project director Richard Griffin, a senior City officer has repeatedly said that JLL provided expert advice which informed the choice of the Frederick News-Post site implying they ranked it #1 site. Given Mr Griffin’s repeated public references to the JLL analysis your claim JLL were only “assisting with internal decision making” makes no sense. The City’s leading spokesman for the hotel project clearly sees propaganda value in being able to claim JLL supported the chosen site which otherwise would be seen as chosen by a bunch of hotel amateurs (the Mayor’s hotel advisory committee.) Continued withholding of the JLL analysis only fuels the suspicion that the public is being misled about the expert advice the City received from JLL.
PS I have elaborated on this here (a link to this piece):
P Sam 2017-08-14