Eclectic commentary from a progressive voice in the red state

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A Tale of Two Cities: An Open Letter to the Amarillo City Council

An Open Letter to the Amarillo City Council:

I am sending this letter to you and posting it to The Amarillo Independent blog for a specific reason. I
had thought about coming before the council during its session in the Council Chambers to read this. But I chose not to for a few reasons. First, what I have to convey, even if read very quickly, will likely take longer than the three minutes. Second, after watching the former commission and now council, I am quite aware how Mayor Harpole treats those with whom he disagrees. I thus choose to not subject myself to the highly likely interruptions, verbal abuse and boorish behavior that characterizes the way he runs these meetings.

As I write this, I’ve just returned from a week-long camping trip. I only followed the news alerts about Wallace Bajjali sporadically. Now I’ve caught up about Wallace Bajjali’s situation in Joplin, where the now-defunct firm was also a master developer. If anyone wishes to get caught up on that situation, all they need do is Google “Wallace Bajjali” and Joplin or go to The Turner Report. Turner provides a pathway to the media coverage and the damning Missouri State Auditor report. In fact, the findings in Joplin are so bad they have been turned over to a prosecutor for possible criminal action. If you and other leadership haven’t studied the information you best do so.

The audit found that Wallace Bajjali seemed to have an inside track in Joplin, aided in part by the Chamber of Commerce months earlier giving information to Wallace Bajjali firm to respond to the RFP. According to the audit, “It is unclear how Wallace Bajjali was able to obtain 11 letters of intent for various projects within the redevelopment area before the concept of a master developer was presented to the city council or a RFP was issued unless the firm had prior knowledge of potential project details.”

As I’ve written before, much of what happened here and in Joplin are uncannily parallel.

The audit also faulted the decision-makers in Joplin for ignoring the Wallace Bajjali’s problems with regulators, financial liabilities, failures here in Amarillo and other warning signs. In Joplin, Wallace Bajjali won the deal over bidders with no liabilities; their City Council, like ours, ignored warnings, including those that told them engaging Wallace Bajjali would be a huge error. And, in Joplin, that information was kept from the public.

Of course, how Amarillo ended up with Wallace Bajjali remains murky at best, what with so many meetings behind closed doors. But, in November 2010, The Amarillo Independent’s story raised the same issues that later unfolded in Joplin and at the then-Amarillo City Commission Nov. 16 meeting, Downtown Amarillo Inc.’s Melissa Dailey, with Amarillo Globe-News Publisher Les Simpson, who was her board president, said DAI had done due diligence. Dailey downplayed the Independent’s findings. Now, of course, we must raise the same questions about Wallace Bajjali’s selection here. It is a fair question to ask what DAI's Dailey and Simpson knew and when they knew it.

Then there is a matter of the $947,000 in so-called “pursuit costs” the city paid to Wallace Bajjali, even as some councilors knew the firm wasn’t delivering on its promises. What we know now from Joplin is that David Wallace and his firm submitted invoices for such things as a $161 pair of dress shoes for Wallace while in Springfield, Mo.; a hotel stay in Springfield for $333; and, booze for Wallace, Costa Bajjali, a then-city councilor and then-city manager and Joplin Chamber of Commerce employees. Even more incriminating was an invoice for hotel costs in Arkansas for $222 four months before the city issued an RFP. But in Amarillo, we’ve never seen a public itemization of those costs so we don’t know any of those details. Do we have the same issues here and we just don’t know it — yet?

This tale of two cities continues with “newspapers” of record being lapdogs instead of watchdogs. The Joplin Globe, like the out-of-town-owned Amarillo Globe-News, was in the tank for Wallace Bajjali from the start. And while the Joplin paper, as best I can tell, was simply egregious in slanting or not reporting about Wallace Bajjali and downtown development, the Globe-News here was grossly unethical in its participation in downtown development. With its publisher on the DAI and Local Government Corp. boards, how could anyone expect anything but lapdog behavior and boosterism?

It’s time for all of us to know more about this Wallace Bajjali-“catalyst project” albatross around our collective taxpaying necks. So, I am once again calling on the City Council to take decisive action on downtown development:

·Invoke Sec. 19 of the Amarillo City Code and launch a full investigation on the entire eight-year-with-nothing-to-show-for-it effort, issuing subpoenas to all concerned for documents and testimony about their roles in downtown development.

·Suspend any further development on the hotel and parking garage — contracts be damned because if the deals were put together illegally they are void.

·Investigate the investors in the hotel and determine if they have acted with “insider” information equivalent to what would constitute insider information under the rules of the Securities and Exchange Commission and Texas Securities laws.

·Investigate who and what is behind the treatment of the Herring Hotel and why the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone provided abatements to Wallace Bajjali and subsequently the Patel group without them submitting applications as others have done.

·Freeze all payments to Downtown Amarillo Inc. until further notice.

·The Nov. 3 vote on the “MPEV” is advisory only and poorly worded. No matter the vote, freeze any decision until the Sec. 19 investigation is completed.

This entire downtown development effort has been tainted from the start. And throughout, the advocates of the Wallace Bajjali-Downtown Amarillo Inc. approach, including former Mayor Debra McCartt and former councilors, Mayor Harpole, Councilman Eades, City Manager Jarrett Atkinson and members of the DAI, LGC and TIRZ boards have been more than disingenuous — they have been dishonest. No taxpayer money was the biggest lie, but each week we get a new revelation that oozes from one of the contracts.

The City Council with three new members elected can not only stop this insanity and reboot the planning process. But it can also restore trust in city government. I beg you to do so.