City Watch: Blythewood ‘making a mountain of public debt out of a molehill of personal spite’

As the soap opera that is the legal battle between Blythewood and the marketing firm it hired to boost the town’s image rages on, one thing is certain: attorney fees.

The fight between Blythewood Town Council and MPA Strategies and its president, Ashley Hunter, is now in year three of dueling lawsuits.

The result is thought to be hundreds of thousands of dollars, thus far, in legal fees paid with taxpayer dollars to a major Columbia law firm, Nexsen Pruet (now Maynard Nexsen), that the town hired to fight MPA Strategies. The Voice of Blythewood newspaper recently headlined a story, “Town’s legal expenses could be approaching $800,000.”

I say those numbers are “thought to be” because Blythewood Town Council has refused to disclose to its citizens how much of their tax money it has paid Maynard Nexsen to do battle with MPA.

In my view, any member of that elected body who voted to keep payments to the town’s outside law firm secret should be voted out of office. And two of them just were.

Former Mayor Bryan Franklin bit the political dust a few weeks ago, as did Councilman Eddie Baughman. Both deserved their fate, as getting into this mess over a minor marketing contract and then voting to hide the town’s legal fees from taxpayers showed a remarkable lack of judgment with which to begin.

With those legal fees now far exceeding the original contract value ($50,000), the matter has become not just an embarrassment, but a farce, as well. To keep escalating those legal fees rather than having settled the matter long ago shows politicians who are unserious about their role and responsibility in spending public money.

Fortunately (it seemed), newly elected Mayor Sloan Griffin had pledged to both stop the secret spending on the marketing contract lawsuits and fully reveal how much public money has already been wasted in making a mountain of public debt out of a molehill of personal spite.

But as politicians often do, Griffin quickly backed away from his campaign promises. At Town Council’s first meeting after his installation as mayor, he said he could not release any financial information about the cost of the MPA lawsuits “until I get favorable pieces back from our legal team.” Whatever that may mean.

And if all that were not enough, there is another unseemly element to this melodrama that is a further embarrassment to the good people of Blythewood.

Specifically, former Mayor Franklin accused MP Strategies’ Hunter of engaging in a romantic relationship with Councilman Donald Brock in order to secure the contract. Both Hunter and Brock flatly denied the charge, and Hunter is suing over that, too.

The idea that a woman who owns a successful business has to put up with that kind of personal attack in this day and age is beyond belief and beneath contempt. Unless Franklin can provide proof of the alleged affair, I hope Hunter takes him and the town to the cleaners on that count.

As for the other charges and countercharges between the town and Hunter, I don’t know who is right or wrong. I will wait for the jury to weigh the evidence and decide.

That’s how it’s supposed to be done, as opposed to trial by rumor, trial by intimidation or trial by local politicians.

For the record, I am not on Hunter’s side in this matter because I know her well or am in the same business that she is. I’ve only met her once, and that was before her firm won the Blythewood contract.

She contacted me to discuss a municipal issue I’d written a column about, as the city of Cayce has long been a client of her firm. I found her very prepared and professional, and would not have expected her to be hired, fired and sued by the fine people of Blythewood or anyone else.

But once she was, I do admire the way she has fought back. Especially when it comes to the attacks on her character that ensued from this matter.

We’ll see what happens next. And like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of Blythewood Town Council …

Kevin Fisher is president of Fisher Communications, a Columbia advertising and public relations firm. He is active in local issues involving the arts, conservation, business and politics.  

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