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Wayne Co. jail consultant sparks conflict debate

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Detroit — A consultant being considered to oversee the completion of Wayne County’s unfinished jail project in downtown Detroit has ignited debate among the county commission because of its potential ties to billionaire businessman Dan Gilbert.

Under a proposal submitted by Wayne County Executive Warren Evans’ administration, Columbia, S.C.-based Carter Goble Associates LLC (CGL) would serve as the representative on the project. Carter Goble would be tasked with helping the county choose a plan to finish the jail, select contractors and coordinate work.

But commissioners on Thursday postponed forwarding a proposed $3.9 million, three-year contract with Carter Goble to the full commission for its approval until next week. Instead, meeting as a committee of the whole, commissioners voted 8-7 to take the matter up as a committee at 9 a.m. July 7.

Deputy County Executive Richard Kaufman told commissioners Thursday the effort to build the jail ran aground years ago because the county had no oversight over the project’s contractors.

“We strongly believe (Carter Goble) is the answer to avoid that problem,” he said. “We think they’re the best one to lead us from where we are now to finishing the Gratiot jail.”

But Kaufman told commissioners the group that wants to buy the jail property to build a Major League Soccer stadium is considering hiring Carter Goble to conduct an analysis of potential alternative locations for the jail. The group is led by Gilbert and Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores.

“My understanding is CGL is going to be retained by either the Downtown Detroit Partnership or the Gilbert group to do an assessment on alternative sites to Gratiot to build us a new jail, a new courthouse and a juvenile detention center,” he said.

The Downtown Detroit Partnership is an alliance of corporate, civic and philanthropic leaders that develops programs designed to create an inviting downtown district.

“It is their hope ... they can come show us that there’s an alternative site that meets the two conditions that Warren Evans has put down: one, it meets all the needs of the county in terms of a jail, courthouse and juvenile detention facility, and two, it does it in a way that’s not a greater burden on Wayne County taxpayers. Not many of us here think they can meet those.”

Commissioners raised questions about a conflict of interest Thursday.

“I’m familiar with CGL and the great work they do,” said commission Vice Chairwoman Alisha Bell, D-Detroit. “But hearing that they’re also working with the Gilbert group is a little concerning.”

Commissioners Diane Webb, D-Livonia, and Irma Clark-Coleman, D-Detroit, agreed.

“I think (Carter Goble) has the expertise. ... I would support hiring them if it wasn’t for the fact they’re going to be working with the organization that we may be negotiating with,” Webb said. “To me, that’s a glaring conflict of interest.”

Clark-Coleman added: “My feeling is it’s pretty hard to serve two masters.”

Officials for Carter Goble were not at the meeting and couldn’t be reached Thursday.

Zenna Elhasan, director of corporation counsel for the county, explained they weren’t asked to attend because of the expense to fly company representatives to Detroit for a committee of the whole meeting. She said they will be at the next meeting.

But Kaufman assured commissioners there would be no conflict because Carter Goble would be providing the county and Gilbert’s group two different services.

“We’ve had a lot of discussions with CGL,” he said. “We’ve told CGL we’re the ones who are hiring you, and it’s our intent to finish the Gratiot jail, and you can do nothing that takes away from your 100 percent commitment to helps us get from where we are to finishing the jail.”

He also said that if “by some long shot” the company does find a way to have a new jail and courthouse built elsewhere and meet all of Evans’ requirements, the county would have to consider it.

“I don’t think it’s likely, but I can’t rule it out,” he said.

Later in the meeting, the point became moot when Kaufman told commissioners the administration recommends revising the contract to prohibit Carter Goble from taking a jail-related contract with Gilbert’s group.

Despite that, commissioners opted to postpone voting to forward the proposal to the full board to give them more time to gather information.

Wayne County began construction of a $220 million jail on Gratiot near Interstate 375 in 2011, under then-County Executive Bob Ficano. The site is bounded by Gratiot, Chrysler Service Drive, Macomb and Beaubien.

Work on the 2,000-bed project was halted in June 2013 due to $100 million in overruns and charges of corruption.

County officials estimate it costs about $1.3 million a month to have the unfinished jail sitting unused.

In April, Gilbert and Gores said they wanted to build a 25,000-seat soccer stadium, retail and residential units, a hotel and covered parking and plazas on the site. Major League Soccer hasn’t made a formal commitment yet to Detroit, but said the city is one of seven being considered as the league continues with its expansion.

cramirez@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2058