Extra land for downtown hotel causes more delay, more cost, more conflict

Joe Briglia

18 months ago the Plamondon company’s Joe Briglia made a page-and-a-half (1.5p) proposal to Richard Griffin the City’s director of economic development. This key Briglia email of February 13, 2017 has been blacked out (‘redacted’) as confidential and claimed to be exempt from state law’s requirement for release as a public document so we are denied its detail. But it is clear from other emails that have been released to us that the Briglia proposal was an argument that the City should buy the whole Eagles property — their club building as well as their parking lot immediately adjacent to the hotel site. 

We have the email response by Griffin to the 1.5p proposal: “Thanks Joe. I will discuss with leadership and get back to you. I appreciate your analysis.”

Eight days later and hearing nothing back, Pete Plamondon emailed Griffin (cc Briglia) simply: “Any update?” And Briglia asked “Can we get a decision at mtg (meeting)?” Apparently this was an effort to get a meeting with Mayor McClement to gain his support. In both cases the emails have ’Subject: re Eagles Appraisal.”

Three hours later Griffin replied to Plamondon an Briglia: “I put it on the agenda. Previously (the) Mayor said no. I think it is worthwhile. We can pitch it again.” (Feb 22)

Apparently Mayor McClement was cold on the Plamondon-Griffin scheme to have the City buy more land for Plamondon hotel project (It is already own the hook for buying the old Frederick News-Post site from the Randall family.)

The email trail released by the City goes cold for two months. On April 20 2017 Briglia emails local real estate appraiser Michael Pugh (cc Griffin) under subject head ‘Eagles scope’ “Not sure if City has spoke (sic) to you as yet but we’d like you to expand Eagles work to include a full property (bldg & parking) appraisal.”

The decision had been made to get an appraisal of the Eagles club building as well as the parking lot.  Another month later, on May 9: Pugh says he wants to make an inspection of the Eagles building. The City’s parking director Steve Johnson is in on the emails. His department is supposed to operate the parking under the hotel.

Can these hotel guys walk and chew gum?

June 22, 2017 Pete Plamondon emails City officials about a meeting in City Hall under the subject ‘Eagles Hotel Planning vs Municap meeting.’ The meetings, one on acquiring the Eagles  clash June 22 and an effort is made via emails to adjust times to enable both to occur.

June 29 top Eagles officials show up in emails — Dan  Cover a local agent of the Columbus OH ‘Grand Aerie’ the national organization which owns the Frederick club buildings. Plus Creighton Thurman the Grand Aerie lawyer who was scheduled to “fly in” for the meeting. Mid-summer the emails show Meeting Organizer as Joe Briglia and the subject Hotel Planning. Invitees included City officials Griffin, Donna Goff another DED official, and Steve Johnson city parking head and top Eagles officers. Location was usually at “Roys” — one of the Roy Rodgers restaurants. 

Meanwhile appraiser Michael Pugh was completing his first appraisal reports, billing the City $5,500 (Aug 25). But for some time they were not shared with the Eagles. 

By September 2017 Briglia was emailing the City’s Richard Griffin that an Eagles trustee Glenn Bob had inquired about the appraisals. Briglia also asked when the City was going to “followup to show them alternative locations” to help them sell their present East Patrick St club building.

For four months Plamondon and the City withheld the appraisals of their property from  Eagles officials. October 7 the Eagles Dan Cover after pleasantries about Hurricane Irma asked Briglia bluntly: “What is the time line on getting the appraisal?”

Two days later he was told “Hi Dan. Nothing has been planned yet. City wants to deliver this to you in person. Let us know when you are planning a trip.”

$350+/hour consultant lawyers employed to get secrecy pledges

Higher priority was given in the Fall to getting together a new MOU. Initially the hope was that the Amended and Restated (A&R) MOU — as it was titled — would be ready for submission to the Mayor and Board of Aldermen before the 2017 elections in case a new Mayor & Board might show less support for the project. 

Unknown to the public the City hired yet more highly paid ($350 and $425/hour) consultants to help put together the A&R MOU. Ballard Spahr of Baltimore billed the City $21,877.50 for 54.9 hours of work between November 2, 2017 and April 30, 2018. Their billed work was part Eagles land acquisition, part the A&R MOU. Alsop one of Ballard Spahr’s tasks was getting non-disclosure agreements, the timesheets show. Known as NDAs these are pledges of secrecy and of dubious legality under State open government law. And exactly why is it considered by the participants important enough to conceal what they are doing from the public with signed NDAs?

$27,377 in previously undisclosed consultant bills for City taxpayers
The invoice timesheet mentions City officials directly involved around this time as Mayor McClement’s assistant Nikki Bamonti, City attorney Saundra Nickols, City budget director Katie Barkdoll, and Richard Griffin, director economic development. 

November 7, 2017 Dave Weymer from Barkadia, a Chevy Chase based mortgage broking and consulting firm emailed the hotel group  (the City’s Bamonti, Barkdoll, Nickols and Griffin and at Plamondon Pete Jr, Ed Prensky, Briglia and Ballard Spahr’s Haun) under the subject head ‘Downtown Hotel at Carroll Creek: Amended and Restated MOU’ saying a near-final version of the A&R MOU was ready. He had clearly been working long hours to meet a deadline intended to allow the McClement administration to finalize the new City contract with Plamondon before it stepped down. (The City says it has made no payments to Barkadia so that company was apparently contracted by Plamondon.)

Weymer: “Please find clean and marked drafts of the Amended and Restated MOU. In the interest of  time I am sending this to my client and it remains subject to their review.”

“Aim to finalize this week,” Weymer ended his 06:59 email.

Twelve hours later (at 18:20) Andrea Mattei emailed the same group with further edited versions of the A&R MOU. They were hustling to meet a deadline the hoel group had set. 

Then Weymer was shocked to learn that the Big Push to finalize the new MOU by that week’s deadline was being dumped: “All: just got text stating ‘because of timing the MOU will go before the new Alderman and Mayor in January.’ Richard, Saundra, please provide any color and confirm that this news changes our timing for completing the A(mended) and R(restated) MOU this week.” (2017/10/08 11:38)

Richard was mum, leaving it to Saundra to break the news to the overtime working consultant that the deadline was being dumped.

The big let-down was announced to the same Hotel Group: there wasn’t time to get the new MOU to the ending-Mayor & Board for approval. Instead they should work for the new MOU to go to the incoming Mayor & Board in January “but (that) will depend on the incoming mayor,” Nickols said presciently. The Amended and Restated MOU was not released and debated at the Mayor and Board until mid-June and executed July 2, 2018.  That after declines in the previous November and in January 2018 had been missed.

Why so slow?

Of course this project is always slow. Nine years since the first consultant report and City adoption of the Hotel Advisory Committee (HAC) and still no delineation of the property or plans… 

But the January 2018 emails show Plamondon wanting to advance the project and the O’Connor administration giving it a low priority. Mayor O’Connor himself was “not available” to meet with the hotel group January 12, they were told. Unless there are missing

Mayor O’Connor

emails (see withheld ones below) it appears he has never met with the hotel group. And in conveying the “not now” or “not-with-the-mayor” message in a Jan 10 email Griffin told ‘Pete and Joe’ (Plamondon and Briglia) that unless they had a concrete agenda the Jan 12 meeting should be “rescheduled.”

In the first months of this year Mayor O’Connor told Earl Robbins he was accepting this resignation as chairman of the Hotel Advisory Committee (HAC.) His Information Officer Patti Mullins told us that the Mayor would not be appointing a replacement. The HAC as the City-sponsored body in control of the hotel project was officially dead. 

The email chain suggests the HAC’s effective demise can be dated further back. Throughout 2017 into this year the active hotel group comprised senior Plamondon officers, senior City officials and consultant Ballard Spahr staff. Their two principal activities were negotiating the new MOU and seeking the Eagles property. Planning issues have been put on hold.

The emails make clear that the new Hotel Group differs from the old HAC in several respects:

1. Representation: the Chamber of Commerce officers and Frederick County representatives who were prominent in the HAC are not represented in the new Hotel Group

2. The new mover-&-shaker of the Hotel Group is Plamondon’s Joe Briglia in place of the City’s Richard Griffin at the HAC

3. The Group tends to meet at a Roys restaurant, not like the HAC in City Hall (the Roys franchises in Frederick are Plamondon’s)

What remains the same is the secrecy, the closed-door operations. The Hotel Group is just as secretive as the Hotel Advisory Committee. And just as untethered from the norms of City government. 

The emails make clear there was someone tension within the Eagles with Plamondon dealing exclusively with the Ohio-based ‘Grand Aerie” or national headquarters while keeping local Eagles officers in the dark.  A local officer Robbie Wilson moved to be included in the sale discussions January 2018. First he contacted Plamondon’s Joe Briglia who had been the lead strategist and negotiator. Briglia told Wilson he’d have to speak to Griffin about the appraisals of the Eagles property which the City was paying for.

Griffin responded to Wilson: “I cannot recall if we have met. I assume you are local Eagles. We have previously provided a copy of the appraisals to Dan Cover but I am happy to provide you with a copy as well if he concurs. Give me a ring to discuss.” (2018/01/18)

A week later (2018/01/26) Briglia moves to limit Wilson’s access to the appraisal emailing Griffin and his deputy Donna Goff under subject head ‘Eagles property appraisal: “Dan Cover… is on point for this matter. Please hold off on any response (to Wilson).”

Also from Briglia: “Richard/Pete – We need to go thru Dan on all communications at this point…”

They were now into the period when the Eagles properties were being negotiated by Plamondon — overseen by the rest of the Hotel Group including City officials. By the end of March (3/27) Pugh Real Estate put in his last bill ($4,000) for the appraisals he’d done. We have no emails or other information for this period, the content of which has been heavily censored, ‘redacted’ in the legalese.

“UnFOIAable” asks Joe Briglia?

Plamondon’s Joe Briglia was concerned about confidentiality asking Saundra Nickols in an email December 19: “Just wanted to confirm protocol — if sent to Andrea (only) for distribution — does it remain  confidential ([i.e unFOIA’able]?  Please advise.” (Andrea is Andrea Mattei one of the City’s Ballard Spahr real estate consultants.) Nickols responded: “Joe, Sending a document to Andrea (Mattei) is the same as sending it to the City. Either way the document will become a ‘public record’ once it is received. If the City receives a PIA request, the City will review the exceptions set forth in the last (chapter.) One exception covers confidential commercial/financial information.” (square brackets like this [,] are Briglia’s)

Briglia’s term ’unFOIAable’ of course means blocked from being gotten by journalists, other investigators or citizens generally through a request of the government under a Freedom of Information Act, the more common title for what in Maryland is officially the Public Information Act or PIA. Briglia had said half an hour earlier on Dec 29, 2017 that he was sending an offer (LOI or Letter of Intent) for their property to the Eagles agent Dan Cover, adding “we agreed the city shall review and comment as necessary.” This in a Briglia email to City Attorney Saundra Nickols, City consultant Andrea Mattei and cc’d to  Pete Plamondon, Griffin and Katie Barkdoll under the subject heading Eagles LOI.

We asked in a Public Information Act request for communications between City and Plamondon on the purchase of Eagles club real estate for the hotel project in 2017 and 2018. The City Attorney in response said there were 100 records responsive to the request of which they released 50 in full. Another 16 were released but with much of the content blacked out or ‘redacted.’ 34 were withheld entirety on grounds they contain confidential commercial or financial information, including real estate appraisals. Sections 4-335 and 4-349a of state law are cited to justify the withholding.

Not knowing what the content is it is difficult to argue with any of this.

But in another PIA request we asked for copies of the appraisal reports on the value of the three Eagles properties for which City taxpayers paid $6750. Release of these refused on the grounds that it would “interfere with the City’s ability to adequately conduct negotiations for the purchase of the properties.” (citing section 4-362 of state law.) 

Open government would be ‘interference’

This makes no sense. Plamondon not the City is negotiating with the Eagles. The appraisal reports have not been held confidentially within the City. Or even within the City and Plamondon who is negotiating on behalf of the City. They have been shared, the emails tell us, with Eagles officers from the OhIo head office which holds the titles to the properties. So the other party to the proposed transaction already knows the appraised values that the City and Plamondon are working off. Only the public, other potential buyers of the Eagles’ properties and rank and file Eagles club members are being denied the appraisals. “Interference” in the negotiations via release of the appraisal values could actually be

advantageous to the Eagles in getting them better offers than Plamondon is making. And it would be advantageous to city aldermen and taxpayers to see the appraisal reports.

What the City Attorney calls “interference” in the purchase of the land by the City, is simply allowing others to have a say in what is bought with taxpayer money. It is called democracy, and government by the people. 

It would be interference, sure — interference in secret dealings that flagrantly violate the City’s rules on purchasing and which completely bypass the City’s specialized Purchasing Department. It has been known previously that the City might look to buy more land for the hotel project, despite claims that the old News-Post site they have is excellent. No explanation has been given by City officials as to exactly why they need extra land. No explanation has been given as to why the Plamondon  company is acting as an agent of the City in the purchase negotiations.   20181030

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