Heery Walking a High Wire

Heery Walking a High Wire

As faces grow redder over the bungling of the $40 million Municipal Center renovations, a lot of attention is being paid to Heery International, the company paid by the city to oversee the Municipal Building renovations as well as all the big-ticket SPLOST projects.

It’s not the kind of attention any company likes to receive.

When Clerk of Commission Lena Bonner addressed commissioners regarding how her department had been affected by the renovations, the commission took notice, partly out of respect for Bonner and partly because her tale was simply outrageous.

Not only was her department shoehorned into less than 1,300 square feet behind the new commission chamber, but as the custodian of 200 years worth of records, she wasn’t provided with the space to keep them.

Forrest White, program manager for Heery, told the commission that he heard few concerns from Bonner and insisted he was unaware of her document storage issues, but Bonner responded by producing a correspondence that proved White had been informed of her concerns in late 2012.

However, Heery is standing firm behind the idea that it didn’t do anything involving the project without prior approval, and with hands-on former administrator Fred Russell no longer around to defend himself, expect a line to form of people waiting to throw him under whatever bus happens to drive by.

In light of Bonner’s information, the commission is now feeling the need to react, and they’re looking like the Keystone Cops while doing it, installing Bonner into the space custom designed for the law department, but leaving the law department without a permanent home other than in the city-owned building on Greene Street, which everyone was anxious for them to leave in the first place.

In spite of the tire tracks across his back, you’ve got to figure the happiest person in town right now must be Fred Russell, who got the boot last December. Not only did he get out ahead of the quickly deteriorating relationship between the commission and Heery, but he got to erase some of the correspondences that might have made this a whole lot worse for everybody, especially Heery.

To many, Heery and Russell seemed to be two heads of the same beast.

Russell, who liked to boast about the buildings that were built under his tenure, was a big supporter of Heery, who is basically paid to oversee the city’s largest projects, like the Augusta Judicial Center, the new sheriff’s office, the Augusta Convention Center (also known as the TEE Center), the new library building and, of course, the Reynolds Street parking deck.

While commissioners have grumbled about certain of aspects of Heery’s performance, including the lack of parking connected to the Judicial Center and later, the built-in pay increases that pushed the hourly rates of some Heery personnel up to $200 an hour, for the most part they’ve supported the group with a reasoning falling somewhere between “too big to fail” and “don’t change horses in mid-stream.”

In June of 2013, Commissioner Bill Lockett commented that replacing Heery could be foolish and costly.

Of course the bad press generated last year when it was revealed that Heery entertained commissioners with premium tickets at Falcons and Braves games didn’t help things, but ultimately the commission extended Heery’s contract by a 9-1 vote.

Obviously, there have been issues with some of the buildings — there always are — but nothing compares to the issues with the Municipal Building renovations, which have risen from an embarrassment to an outrage, with possibly more revelations on the horizon.

One bathroom for 10 commissioners? No space for the clerk of commission? Really?

With a reputation for dysfunction, part of Heery’s unwritten job description may have been to think for the commission, to gently move forward in a way that kept those 10 pairs of hands out of the details. If so, that was a dangerous move.

While that might be the most efficient way of doing business, such a lack of oversight comes with significant opportunities for abuse, not to mention the potential for problems like the one they’re facing now. Now, Heery’s high wire act seems a lot more dangerous and more than a little uncomfortable to watch

Whether Heery regains its balance or gives everyone a spectacular swan dive will play out over the next few weeks, but it’s clear its performance is certainly lacking the confidence and swagger of old.

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