Mayor Phil Bredesen’s recent suggestion that Oilers owner Bud Adams consider hiring the public relations firm that helped the mayor get elected smacks of an inappropriate mixing of public and private intereststhe very sort of activity the mayor has spoken against, PR professionals and others say.
During the past week, local public relations executives have been quietly criticizing Bredesen for recommending McNeely Pigott & Foxone of Nashville’s top public relations powerhousesto Adams during a meeting earlier this month in Houston. The firm, which coordinated the successful “NFL Yes” campaign leading up to the countywide stadium referendum, has since been retained by the Oilers.
The referral, while not sinister in any way, has sparked a good deal of grumbling from MP&F’s competition. But what’s more important is that it suggests the kind of favoritism the mayor tried to target when he framed a new Metro ethics policy shortly after he took office in 1991. That policy was instituted in the midst of a federal investigation into whether Everett Medlin, then Metro’s purchasing director, had given preferential treatment to a contractor who was one of his close friends.
The ethics code specifically states that Metro employees should avoid any actions that “might result in, or create the appearance of, giving preferential treatment to any person.”
Other Metro departments even go beyond the policy. The Metro Codes department, for example, even avoids recommending specific contractors to people who ask for suggestions. In discussing specific contractors, Codes’ policy only permits staffers to answer questions about a builder’s track record. “We wouldn’t recommend one [builder] over the other,” says Sonny West, the department’s zoning administrator. “In fact, we tell our inspectors constantly not to do that.”
Bredesen’s recommendation on behalf of MP&F doesn’t technically fall under the ethics code because the client is not a government agency. The Oilers, a private corporation, will be paying rent to Metro when the stadium is complete. But McNeely Pigott & Fox has done city work and could be up for more Metro contracts in the future.
Bredesen’s spokeswoman, Shannon Hunt, stresses that McNeely Pigott & Fox was only one of a number of firms that Bredesen recommended when he flew to Houston, at his own expense, to meet with Adams. But some of the city’s other public relations firms, and at least one local ethicist, are concerned that Bredesen’s office won’t name the firms he recommended.
“He just feels [there are] some things he will say and some things he won’t,” Hunt says. “The point was, he did mentionand they discussedpros and cons of more than one person and/or groups of people. It wasn’t like it was McNeely Pigott & Fox or nothing.”
After an NFL meeting last week, when Adams said he was considering hiring McNeely Pigott & Fox, Bredesen’s office confirmed that the mayor had recommended Dave Cooley, a partner at the firm and the mayor’s former chief of staff. Beyond that, Bredesen’s office won’t give any hints as to who else was on the recommendation list.
Robert Thompson, who teaches ethics at Vanderbilt University’s Owen School of Management, says Bredesen’s posture is both clever and problematic. By not naming the other firms, he spares them the embarrassment of being publicly named as the ones who were not hired. But it also leaves doubt about whether any other firms were mentioned at all.
“Ethical considerations depend upon obtaining the truth,” Thompson says. “[The mayor’s] unwillingness to reveal the truth creates an appearance of impropriety.” According to Thompson, “ascertaining the truth” is at the heart of every ethical inquiry. “I would just say, if you don’t tell us the other names we’re going to assume there weren’t any.”
At least, Thompson says, Bredesen can’t be criticized for expecting to receive anything in return from making the recommendation. “Normally, in political ethics, a politician gains somethingeither someone puts money in their pockets or they get something in kind as a result,” Thompson says. “One of the things that insulates Phil Bredesen is his personal fortune.”
Thompson suggests Bredesen’s motives were probably good even if the mayor did put himself in an awkward position. The mayor “takes his initiatives really seriously, whether it be the Oilers or the schools issue or whatever,” Thompson suggests.
On the other hand, Paul Hendrie, managing editor for Capital Eye, which is published by the Center for Responsive Politics, a political watchdog organization in Washington, D.C., says it’s not the place of politicians “to be referring people to specific businesses,” even if the referral is to a private corporation like the Oilers.
“It would be one thing to hand [Adams] the Yellow Pages and say, ‘Here are the PR firms,’ ” Hendrie says. “It’s the kind of mixing of public and private in a way that isn’t exactly appropriate.”
The city loses its stadium guru next month. Steve Curtis, who was hired by the Metro Development and Housing Agency to be project manager for the massive construction project, gave 30 days’ notice earlier this week.
Gerald Nicely, director of MDHA, confirmed that Curtis had resigned, saying he got a better job opportunity. “I hate to see him go,” Nicely says. “He’s done a good job.”
Nicely says his agency will begin looking for a replacement, most likely outside the pool of people currently working on the project.
Huff and stuff
State Sen. Steve Cohen has loudly criticized the Scene for a Sept. 18 cover profile of him. In the wake of the story, Cohen felt compelled to tell reporters statewide that he had not smoked marijuana since the early 1970s.
Interestingly, Cohen is one of several legislators serving on a new study committee examining drug law enforcement. He is one of six legislators on the committee, which also includes a criminal court judge and two prosecutors. The committee is investigating, among other things, strategies to curb drug trafficking and to provide drug education for children.
The lady declines
Lady Jackson, who heads the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development, says she has decided she won’t run next year for the post of Register of Deeds, which becomes vacant when 75-year-old Felix Wilson retires.
Friends had urged Jackson to run for the office, which is being sought by a large field of candidates. Leading the pack are former mayor and current state Rep. Bill Boner; Bill Garrett Jr., son of former Metro Trustee Bill Garrett; and Water Department employee Parker Toler, a possible dark horse who has the backing of prominent local contractors such as Ray Bell.
Other voices, other mics
Anita Orr, a disgruntled former Metro employee who helped lead the charge for a referendum on the stadium question, wants her friends and family to know that she is cohosting The Power of One radio show, which features former Metro Council member Kwame Leo Lillard. The show airs on Saturdays from 2 to 3 p.m. on WNQM-AM (1300).
To reach Liz, call her at 615-244-7989, ext. 406, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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