This week's lucky number is 17.
Seventeen is the number of an item on Tuesday's council agenda — an architecture contract for Goodwyn, Mills & Cawood, a Montgomery firm slated to design an intermodal transit facility downtown.
Seventeen is also the number of a parking space in City Hall Deck A. That space belongs to a man named Jeff Pitts.
The connection between the two is important. That relation and its revelation Tuesday set off a storm at City Hall.
Pitts served as Mayor Larry Langford's campaign manager. That's the most direct connection between him and City Hall, but that's not where his influence stops. Although Langford adamantly denied Tuesday that Pitts is anything but a friend, the facts suggest something closer to an unofficial advisor and sometimes proxy with tremendous access to City Hall.
According to sources at City Hall, Pitts is a regular visitor to the mayor's office, averaging several visits a week. There he spends much of his time in the office of Chris Hartsell, Mayor Langford's chief of operations. He might not be an official city employee, but he spends at least as much time in the building as a typical City Hall bureaucrat. He has his own parking place and his own ID pass, just like city employees have. In meetings with developers and other private entities, Pitts has represented himself as the mayor's proxy.
Perhaps more interesting, though, is Pitts' official job. He's the CEO of the Matrix Group — a Montgomery-based political consulting firm with an intimidating reputation for dabbling in the political dark arts. Whether warranted or not, the firm is feared by politicians throughout the state. During the Don Siegelman administration, a report in the Mobile Press-Register called it "the closest thing Alabama politics has to a non-governmental secret agency."
Since Langford's election, there has been some curious cross-pollination of old Siegelman connections and names showing up on city council agenda. In January 2008, Tech Providers Inc. received a 12-month $1.3 million contract to install accounting software and train city employees to use it. Six months into that contract, the company ran out of money for the project. It received another $2.7 million at the mayor's urging to do the same job. The city did not keep parallel accounting systems and until last month couldn't provide the city council was basic financial reports as required by law. Some councilors questioned the no-bid contract, but by then it was too late.
Before arriving at City Hall, Tech Providers drew attention during the Siegelman administration, when it received millions in no-bid tech work. Curiously, it's lobbying efforts then were conducted by the Matrix Group.
Pitts' presence at City Hall has been an interest to insiders there, but his role in city government never broke the surface of public debate until Tuesday.
Item 17 on the council's agenda was a proposal from the mayor's office to award Goodwyn, Mills & Cawood a $2.8 million contract to design Phase II of the city's intermodal transit facility downtown. The intermodal plan would provide a common facility for BJCTA MAX buses, Greyhound buses and Amtrak rail. The project is mostly federally funded and anticipated to cost about $30 million when finished.
At the beginning of the meeting Tuesday, Langford asked the council to move swiftly on the project. He criticized the region for not drawing down nearly $100 million of federal matching funds for transit improvements, but minutes later he decried federal funding for having too many strings attached. Saying he had another appointment, Langford left the meeting early, but not before insisting the council act quickly on Item 17.
Hours later, when the council finally reached Item 17, most of the councilors trotted out their usual questions about minority participation, funding sources and selection criteria. It was typical Tuesday pablum.
Then Councilor Valerie Abbott inquired about Pitts' involvement in the securing the contract for Goodwyn, Mills & Cawood. For a moment it was as though a taboo had been broken. There was silence, then the sound of councilors murmuring and shifting in their seats. Chief of Operations Hartsell jolted abruptly in his chair, and then loudly and forcefully insisted that Pitts' had no role in the selection process.
Almost simultaneously, in a Perry Mason-like courtroom moment, one of the representatives from Goodwyn, Mills & Cawood said that the firm had indeed hired Pitts and the Matrix Group for "municipal consulting." Abbott asked which one of them was telling the truth.
Councilors muttered to each other. Langford's special counsel, Julie Elmer, said carefully that Pitts had not played a role in the selection process, which must adhere to federal guidelines prohibiting direct solicitation of the work.
In addition to work with Goodwyn, Mills & Cawood, Pitts has a connection to at least one other party to the deal. The Alabama Secretary of State's website lists Pitts as a partner in one of the subcontractors, Strada Professional Services. Strada principal Edmond Watters says that Pitts is no longer a partner in the company and has no financial interest in it anymore.
Langford, back from his prior engagement, returned to the council chambers and adamantly denied that Pitts did any work for him other than being his friend. When pushed on the matter by Councilor Miriam Witherspoon, Langford told Witherspoon that it was none of her business.
Exasperated with the council's questions, Langford tried to dismiss the Goodwyn, Mills & Cawood representatives, but Council President Carole Smitherman balked at the order, telling the mayor he couldn't simply send the group away.
Some councilors were familiar with the subtext of the debate. Abbott, Witherspoon and Steven Hoyt clearly understood what the Matrix Group was about. Others seemed either oblivious on nonplused.
The council delayed voting on the project for two weeks. In the interim, various council committees will have opportunities to examine the peculiarities of the contract more closely.
However, the council should take this opportunity to examine its own policies regarding influence peddling at City Hall.
State rules and regulations for lobbyists in Montgomery don't apply on a municipal level. Lobbyists working the halls of the Alabama Legislature must carefully report their spending on public officials and other activities. However, at Birmingham City Hall, however, those rules don't exist. There, the influential are free to remain mystery men, plied with the likes of lot 17.
War on Dumb is a column about political culture. Write to email@example.com