Roswell councilwoman questions city transparency on contract

Roswell officials decided to hire Seer World consulting last April while in executive session agreeing to pay the firm up to $250,000.  AJC FILE

Roswell officials decided to hire Seer World consulting last April while in executive session agreeing to pay the firm up to $250,000. AJC FILE

Roswell is again being criticized for a lack of transparency — this time by one of its own city council members.

Councilwoman Sarah Beeson turned the focus of a committee meeting Tuesday into questioning how the city approved a $250,000 contract with a consultant without public input.

Decisions about Roswell’s hiring of the Seer World consulting firm last spring were made in City Council closed sessions.

For months, Beeson has commented that she was unclear on what could be disclosed to the public regarding Seer and that she had been unsuccessful in obtaining complete information from staff on the scope of work the firm would be doing for Roswell.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in September that the no-bid contract shows the firm was hired for advice on potential real estate acquisitions and the possible development of a “stadium and entertainment district.”

Beeson made Seer’s contract an agenda item for the City Council committee meeting Tuesday. She questioned city attorney David Davidson and City Administrator Randy Knighton on why decisions about Seer could not be made through a request for proposals process and during regular City Council meetings, allowing the public to weigh-in.

“How are we able to spend $250,000 without a public vote,” Beeson asked the city attorney.

Mayor Kurt Wilson has previously said the contract was exempt from public disclosure because it was for real estate advice. Experts on the law told the AJC that the advice would be exempt from any public records request, but the contract would not.

Wilson and Councilman Mike Palermo both pushed back against Beeson’s questioning.

Wilson accused Beeson, as well as the AJC story, of being irresponsible in suggesting Roswell lacks transparency.

“There’s nothing funky nor nefarious about the contract, and to suggest that, and for the AJC to suggest that, is irresponsible,” Wilson said.

Roswell officials decided to hire Seer World consulting last April while in executive session, agreeing to pay the firm up to $250,000. The hire had been previously discussed during an out-of-state retreat that was not recorded and made available on the city’s website.

The payment is being made through a professional services fee that was approved through an August amendment to the fiscal year 2024 budget. The budget detail was not apparent when presented in public or deeply discussed.

Seer co-founder Peter Sorckoff assists the city in strategic master planning for acquiring land, Davidson said at the Tuesday committee meeting.

Sorckoff provided consulting services to Roswell on an array of matters months before the $250,000 contract was approved in August — including proposed responses by the city to media inquiries on the matter, according to emails obtained by the AJC. Officials have said discussions related to the consulting firm have been in closed session due to real estate matters.

Davidson and City Administrator Randy Knighton added that it’s common practice for consulting services to be provided by a vendor before a contract is ironed out.

“Taking a look at Seer World’s website — their own marketing — I don’t see real estate services provided,” Beeson said, before citing services shown on the site such as strategic design, branding and marketing. “... How do we know that they can do real estate.”

Knighton said conversations with the firm and its previous work with other clients on real estate land acquisitions led to the decision that Seer would be able to help Roswell with strategic planning.

The city is allowed to pay for a professional service such as a broker, appraiser or attorney without going to mayor and council, and the city hasn’t spent the total $250,000 yet, according to Davidson.

So far, Seer has been paid $43,000 according to Knighton.

Seer’s contract shows a budget summary of $180,000 for economic development and land acquisition; and $70,000 for conceptual sports and entertainment exploration.

Beeson said that several requests for Seer’s contract went unanswered for months. She recently filed open records requests to see the contract and invoice, and also emails between department heads.

Wilson does not favor the practice of issuing requests for proposals. They are ineffective and get bogged down in needless processes, he said.

Palermo said that he opposed the $250,000 amount for Seer’s contract during discussions of the current city budget. But, he said he believes Beeson is focused on Seer’s contract because of her current campaign to be reelected to council, rather than a true concern about transparency.

Palermo described the councilwoman’s questions as “theater,” and Wilson called it a “public prosecutor act.”

“I hear you,” Beeson said. “... These are concerns, I believe, should be hashed out in the public realm so people are aware that the conversations are happening.

Beeson added that she recommends the city hire outside counsel to review its procurement process.

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