The two recent pieces on the intersections of government, business, and large projects have produced record numbers of pave views. Those pieces were about the I77 HOT Lanes project generating a lot of recent controversy.
However, you do not have to look at just large projects involving hundreds of millions of dollars to see examples of the revolving door between the public sector and private sector. Instead, you can see it on a smaller scale here locally by looking at the long-standing symbiotic relationship between the Planning Department in the town of Davidson and the local office of the St. Louis based architecture and design firm, The Lawrence Group.
The Lawrence Group local office was opened in 1997 by Dawn Blobaum and Brunson Russum, names that are familiar around town. Two years after helping open the new office Blobaum moved over to town hall becoming Davidson’s Assistant Town Manager – a position she has held for over 16 years. Russum has since left the firm as well, but he has also remained heavily involved in town issues. He currently sits on the town’s citizen-led Planning Board.
Beyond just Russum and Blobum, the revolving door between the town and the firm has continued with other hires. More recently, the two newest members of the town planning staff, Trey Akers and Chad Hall, also sport Lawrence Group alumni status on their resumes.
Over the years, the firm has become the go-to choice for town hall completing multiple small-area plans, helping with the recent planning ordinance re-write, converting the old pump house into offices for the Parks Department, as well as doing the design for the new pedestrian bridge at Roosevelt Wilson Park. One could say the relationship goes back to before the firm’s local office even opened. Another Lawrence Group alum, David Walters of UNCC, helped with the town’s original land plan back in 1995.
One could argue the merits of some of the projects, but it seems beyond debate the firm has had a lasting impact on the town. For its part, the firm has benefited from the relationship beyond justthe fees generated over the years. The firm’s work in Davidson features prominently in some of its sales literature as wells as on its website.
However, all of that hopping between the public and private sectors has also created gray areas in how the town does business and how business gets done in town. Two examples come to mind.
Readers may remember the controversy when the Davidson Green School opened in town in late 2013 and early 2014. The town staff clearly liked the idea of having the new school and supported its request to change a single-family home into a commercial use. However, that proposed change was challenged by a neighbor saying it was not the kind of change that could simply be approved by staff. The issue ended up before the Board of Adjustment.
In this situation, the architect on the project was Dave Malushizky of the Lawrence Group. Malushizky is now the principal at firm’s local office. On the Board of Adjustment for this quasi judicial hearing, sat Brunsun Russum. Russum and Malushizky had previously worked together at the firm. Under the rules governing conflict of interest in a hearing like a Board of a
Adjustment, Russum could have been recused from the panel, but he was not. In the end, the vote was 3-2 in favor of the town with Russum voting in the majority.
Would a different panelist in that hearing have given a different result? Who knows? However, when town staff, a related party to one side of a dispute, and a member of the jury are all former employees of the same firm, it certainly does not look good.
The second example is more recent.
At the recent Planning Board review of the Narrow Passage project proposed for Davidson’s ETJ, again both Russum and Malushizky were on the same side supporting what town staff wants – which is a delay (at a minimum) of the project. Russum was one of the more outspoken board members opposing the project. Malushizky actually spoke against the project or at least its timing during the public comment session. While he did not mention he was speaking on behalf of the Lawrence Group, he did mention multiple times the need for a small-area plan for the area – the kind of plan the Lawrence Group has done for the town in the past.
Again, not something that looks good.
As is often the case in these kind of relationships, it may be as much about who gets what they want and who gets paid as anything else.
Bonus Observation #1
Tying in with the previous story on town attorney Rick Kline and his real estate law business, the Lawrence Group shows on their website the original design for Davidson East - before the lawsuit with CommunityOne Bank, before the current plan from Southern Pacific. Rick Kline was involved in the Davidson East LLC, listed as the registered agent for the company in the NC Secretary of State website.
Bonus Observation #2
It was discussed at town hall this past Tuesday that the town may bring in Craig Lewis from Stantec on 7/28 to discuss the need for a rural small area plan. Lewis was the main principle at the Lawrence Group local office prior to Dave Malushizky. Pretty sure the opinion of Stantec/Craig Lewis won't be much different than Lawrence Group/Craig Lewis.