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Lott fires back at weekly publisher

Photo by Avan Clark

Photo by Avan Clark

ALBANY -- The Albany City Manager scolded a local television editorial program relating to a controversial transit development set for downtown, saying the statements made in the program have no validity.

The planned development had been embroiled in controversy since the Federal Transit Authority, who was partially overseeing the development, threw the brakes on the project after receiving complaints from local residents that an environmental assessment and other portions of the process had not been properly completed.

Last week, WALB-TV aired an opinion segment by weekly newspaper publisher Kevin Hogencamp, a former assistant city manager who resigned shortly after Lott became city manager. Hogencamp, who is routinely critical of Lott in particular in his newspaper articles, accused the city of "being caught cheating by feds" while pursuing the transit project and charged that city officials falsified documentation to support the project, which he said had grown in cost from an initial estimate of $2.3 million to roughly $9 million.

Tuesday night at the City Commission's business meeting, Lott told commissioners he had the "fiduciary responsibility to ensure the city's residents are accurately informed" by addressing some of the statements Hogencamp made on the TV program.

"Last week, there was an editorial on viewpoint that completely misrepresented the facts associated (with) the Multimodal Project," Lott's statement, which is posted at www.albanyherald.com, said. "...There is absolutely no validity to his (Hogencamp's) comments."

In a statement e-mailed to The Albany Herald Tuesday night, Hogencamp defended his statements and said Lott's response to his criticism of the transit center was "eerily similar" to Lott's response to last year's scandal involving former ADICA chief and Albany downtown manager Don Buie, who was investigated, indicted and convicted of defrauding the public.

"In that matter, public scrutiny of Albany city government resulted in a public corruption conviction and three plea agreements," Hogencamp wrote. "I stand by my reporting and subsequent analysis and trust that the circumstances involved with the planning of the bus station project will also be investigated."

Saying that the project is being primarily funded by the state and the FTA, Lott said that initially the project was planned as a two-phase development. Phase I was to include the bus bays and transit offices at a cost of $3.2 million. Phase II was to cost roughly $4.5 million and include retail office space and shops, along with infrastructure that would one day support a planned long-range passenger rail project.

Because of available stimulus funds, the Georgia Department of Transportation accelerated the timetable and essentially combined the two phases in order to become more competitive for the stimulus funds, Lott said.

Lott told commissioners that the much maligned environmental assessment that is believed to have halted the project was sanctioned and approved by the state DOT and that the FTA only rescinded its approval because of complaints from John Sherman, who owns property adjacent to the planned site.

"The city was accused of attempting to cheat the FTA. That is categorically a false, nonsensical and absurd statement," the city manager said. "There is not a shred of evidence to support that claim."

After Lott's remarks, some commissioners responded and asked questions about the project.

"We can't let small minds destroy the city of Albany," Commissioner Tommie Postell said.

Commissioner Roger Marietta offered his support to Lott in combating misstatements and asked David Hamilton, a transit official, about the rail component.

Part of a statewide rail network designed to connect Georgia cities, the Albany transit center is on the list to participate in the long-range project set to be established by 2035, Hamilton said.

Mayor Willie Adams criticized the editorial judgment of those in charge of the TV station's opinion feature to allow guests to speak on topics without having any "validity" to what they're saying.

"I wonder myself if there should be some obligation on the part of the the people who run Viewpoint to ensure that their speakers have any validity on what they're speaking on," he said.

Jim Wilcox, WALB-TV's general manager who typically serves as the station's editorial voice on the show, said that the feature is an open forum for community leaders who want to speak and that the ideas they express don't necessarily reflect those of WALB.

"We offer community leaders the opportunity to come and take part as guest editors as part of Viewpoint," Wilcox said. "The mayor, the city manager, the university presidents; I invite any community leader who has something to say to come on the show."