For Release: March 10, 2015
Contact: Erin Fairbanks, email@example.com, 240-506-6777, @czarinamaude
Councilmembers Criticize Efforts
to Neutralize McMillan Opponents
Chairman Phil Mendelson, joined by Councilmember Elissa Silverman, reacted strongly to testimony at a hearing on Friday, March 6, about District money being paid to a public relations firm to discredit District residents who oppose the McMillan development plan.
The actions by Baltimore-based Fontaine & Company, retained by Vision McMillan Partners (VMP), the District’s pick to develop the 25-acre McMillan Park and Sand Filtration Plant, include the goal of “discredit[ing] and neutralize[ing] the impact of [the] opposition,” as laid out expressly in scope-of-work documents that came to light through citizen FOIA requests.
This is “a bit of PR disaster… [there are some documents] that talk about embarrassing the community,” Chairman Mendelson said during the seven-hour oversight hearing on the performance of the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.
At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman said, “there are some very questionable things in these materials.”
Who paid Fontaine was a recurring question at the hearing. A December 23, 2013, invoice for expenditures to Fontaine was signed by Aakash Thakkar for the developer, and approved by DMPED on 1/22/14
However at the Friday hearing, Mr. Thakkar stated that “no public funds were used to suppress community opposition … [the Fontaine contract] was, however, to give folks a safe and comfortable place on our dime, not on the government’s dime, to support the project.”
Referring to later documents suggesting the District was credited back for the Fontaine payment, Chairman Mendelson said: “It would be best to have all the information out, and if DMPED is in any way implicated, say so now [so] we don’t have to deal with why it was covered up.”
In her testimony, McMillan activist Debbie Hanrahan alluded to the potential criminality of the deal. Chair Mendelson said he was “open to” holding a special hearing on McMillan if necessary.
“VMP exists solely to manage the McMillan project, and is paid by DMPED”, says Andrea Rosen, a resident of Ward 2 and member of The Friends of McMillan Park. “However the money was shuffled around, the fact remains taxpayer money was used to discredit the legitimacy of District residents to comment on the disposition and development of their own public property.”
Library Renaissance Project Director Robin Diener observed that, “one grace-note could be Brian Kenner’s assurance to Chair Mendelson, during an earlier hearing on his nomination to be the new head of DMPED, that things will be done differently on his watch, per instructions from Mayor Muriel Bowser.” Neighbors have repeatedly asked for an international design competition to adaptively reuse the landmarked 25 acres. “This would be a hugely exciting project to essentially create a central park for DC.”