Tuesday, February 26, 2008

COMMENTARY: Morris Blinded By Own Integrity

At a Finance Committee meeting of Feb. 25th, LCCCA Chair Art Morris found it difficult to understand why he, a contract employee of Lancaster Newspapers, Inc., should not represent the Authority in negotiations with hotel developer Penn Square Partners (PSP).

A subsidiary of Lancaster Newspapers Inc. is an equal partner in PSP, which, in a manner that is mysterious to long time Authority Board members, had clauses in contracts which 'gifts' PSP with multi-millions of dollars from future state grants and naming rights that would be expected to belong to the Authority.

At the time that the contracts were approved, some board members argued they were not given time for review and pleaded for a continuance. Ted Darcus, who then was chairman, and three other City-appointed board members showed disdain for their request. Joe Morales said that it was sufficient that counsel had reviewed them! Darcus did his usual routine of obfuscation and arrogance to sidestep penetrating questions and objections. He then called for an immediate vote.

Morris, who seems blinded by his own sense of integrity, does not recognize that, for different reasons, neither he nor Darcus are appropriate representatives of the Authority in negotiations over state grants and naming rights. From past statements, it is even doubtful that Morris is supportive of the Authority attempting to renegotiate the outlandish naming rights give-away. Morris should recuse himself and delegate the negotiation to a delegation of board members R. B. Campbell, Julianne Dixon, Laura Douglas, Kevin Fry and Sharon Nelson.

Morris' defense that he also reviews construction vouchers is not relevant since the Authority is not (yet) contesting the terms of the construction contracts.

Although yesterday's discussion only pertains to the sharing of future State grants for the Convention Center Project, Morris had previously agreed to discuss with PSP their claim to 50% of the proceeds from the naming rights, with their share amounting to perhaps $5 million or more.

Below is a transcript of the pertinent discussion:

Randy Carney (audience member): I understand that members of this board are or may be negotiating with Penn Square Partners for a more equitable distribution of future funds from the state?

Morris: At the - and you might remember this, Mr. Carney - at the meeting when we discussed the contingency, we mentioned that there was a differential in percentages and that we were working with Penn Square, through a request through the senator, and working with Penn Square towards that end. That they had expressed a willingness to at least talk to us and that's where it presently stands.

Carney: Okay, have you done any negotiating yet or....

Morris: Well, it's going to come about when the money's available. When we know the money is going to be forthcoming, there will have to be some formal request and at that point is when I would anticipate formalizing that but it's been publicly acknowledged that that percentage has been discussed with them and they've expressed a willingness

(Morris is interrupted)

Morris: and frankly I think the Senate is supportive of that too.

Carney: I have to be honest with you. I've been approached by several members of the public.... Who would actually be negotiating with Penn Square Partners?

Morris: I would be doing the process.

Carney: There is a concern that because you have been writing a column for the Sunday News that that might represent a conflict of interest. How do you react to that?

Morris: A conflict of interest regarding?

Carney: .... Well regarding ... Penn Square Partners is 50% Lancaster Newspapers, 50% High. We all know that. And also because you have also been a sort of part time employee of Lancaster Newspapers as a freelance writer. Certain individuals have expressed a concern that you may not exactly be an impartial negotiator.

Morris: ... I have already discussed this with the solicitor and any member of this Board can do the same thing.... I deal in a lot of little ways with Penn Square Partners ... including approving change orders.

Just for the record, I write quarterly. I'm paid $75 a column.... I told them that I could not continue to do this on a monthly basis because I'm so busy....

I have not written about the Convention Center in any way shape or form. I've written about County Government. I've stayed away from that.

I'm not connected to them other than I get a stipend.

Laura Douglas (Board Member): I don't think their concern is the money as much as it is the relationship – the perceived relationship.... In order to ensure not just the actual transparency but the appearance of propriety, if there was someone else who attended the negotiations along with you...

Morris: ... I have no problems with somebody sitting in.... The current agreement is 50/50, so it's ironic that the mere fact that we have an opportunity to get a higher share is perceived as a conflict. Let me think it through and I'll come back and I'll talk to the Chair of the Finance Committee about what it makes sense to do.