Macon may try to revisit lobbyist contract

Macon City Council’s decision not to renew a contract of Washington-based lobbying firm could cost the city millions of dollars in the long run.

That’s the opinion of the city’s administration and of council members who voted in favor of extending a contract with Blank Rome Government Relations LLC. While the vote was 7-6 in favor of renewing the contract, the measure failed because it lacked support of at least eight of the 15 council members.

“It’s one of the most short-sighted votes I’ve seen in a while,” said Councilman Mike Cranford, chairman of the council’s Appropriations Committee.

Cranford said the firm worked behind the scenes to help secure grants and other sources of federal funding for the city. Without having that lobbying presence in Washington to track down money that could be available to Macon, supporters of the lobbying firm say it could cost the city untold amounts of money.

Critics, however, point to a lack of tangible results as reasons why the contract shouldn’t be renewed.

Even some of the members who supported renewing the contract of $10,000 per month for the next nine months said they had some concerns about Blank Rome’s effectiveness.

Two council members who initially said they would reluctantly vote for the contract — James Timley and Rick Hutto — changed course after a proposed amendment by Timley failed to be adopted.

Timley proposed to amend the resolution by asking that the contract be sent back to the council in 90 days to see if the firm had achieved any “positive results.”

City Attorney Pope Langstaff told council members the amendment essentially was redundant, because every contract the city negotiates contains a 30-day “out” clause that allows Macon to cancel a contract with written notice.

But Hutto said Wednesday he thought Timley’s amendment was a reasonable compromise. Once the amendment failed, Hutto said, he couldn’t support renewing the contract.

Hutto said that without the language Timley’s amendment would have added to the resolution, the contract wouldn’t have automatically returned to the council, and it could have lingered for a long time before the council reconsidered the contract.

“By the time you raise the issue, then put it through the committee, then the full council, you’re talking maybe another 30 or 60 days,” Hutto said.

“I would have voted ‘yes’ if they had put in the 90-day (clause).”

Hutto himself worked as a Washington lobbyist.

“I certainly know the benefits of having a lobbyist,” he said.

Cranford said the amendment was pointless, however, because in addition to the “out” clause, Timley’s proposal didn’t list any criteria of what would constitute positive results by Blank Rome.

“It was ridiculous to try to do something like that,” Cranford said. “It was a grandstanding ploy.”

Andrew Blascovich, spokesman for Macon Mayor Robert Reichert, said the administration plans to bring up the issue again before the council “sooner rather than later.”

“We’re aware of some of the concerns that council members raised, but when you are working with the federal government, it’s not an overnight thing,” Blascovich said.

“Hopefully, we can bring it back before council and hopefully, we can show them some results (the firm has achieved).”

Councilwoman Elaine Lucas argued Tuesday night before the vote that it’s the job of the city’s and state’s elected officials — specifically naming Reichert, Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart, U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., and U.S. Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, both Republicans — to bring federal money into the city and county.

But Blascovich said U.S. representatives have several cities in their districts.

In the case of U.S. senators, they represent cities across the entire state, Blascovich said, so their immediate priorities aren’t necessarily Macon or Bibb County.

Lucas and Hutto also expressed concerns that the city’s unallocated reserves account would only have $10,000 remaining in it if the council approved the contract.

But Cranford said there are two unallocated reserves accounts — one that is a general reserve account, and the other that has money earmarked for specific items.

The money for the Blank Rome contract comes from the latter account, Cranford said, and already had been earmarked during the budget process. That money can’t be used for anything else, he said.

“It’s a situation where some (council members) don’t go to the meetings and don’t understand the finances,” Cranford said. “Because of the law of unintended consequences, this could cost the city millions.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.