Darkness In Mt. Vernon: LED Lighting Project Dims As City Reneges on Deal, Developer Charges

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LED--Horton's vision for Mt. Vernon's streets

Terrence Horton says his plan to bring energy-efficient lighting, millions of dollars in savings, and jobs to the city of Mount Vernon has run headlong into petty politics and blurry visions.

The entrepreneur and developer signed a $3.1 million contract in May 2015 with the city under which his company Sentinel Technologies would replace old-school street lights with energy efficient LED lights.

At the same time the project would create green technology jobs-training and paid internships for Mt. Vernon's youths and address the city's high unemployment crisis.

The trained workers would then earn regular jobs maintaining the new LED system or qualify for employment elsewhere.

Now over a year since the deal was signed the jobs-training program and internships have yet to start and not a single LED light has been installed.

In fact the whole project, and with it the millions of dollars in potential savings, is now in jeopardy as the two sides are locked in a legal court dispute.

Under terms of the contract, a copy of which was reviewed by The Black Star News, Mt. Vernon was required to pay Sentinel $450,000 after completion of Phase One of the contract, which called for conducting a comprehensive survey of all of Mt. Vernon's street lights and supplying the city with a data base and sampling.

The actual cost for the Phase One work was $600,000 according to Horton, but the city had set a cap.

After certifying that the first phase had been completed the City was to authorize Sentinel to start installation of the LED lighting after making the payment.

But the City only paid $113,000 of the $450,000 and since a new administration took office under mayor Richard Thomas, who replaced Ernest Davis, not only has Mt. Vernon refused to pay the $337,000 balance for the Phase One work, but the city is trying to scrap the entire deal, records show.

Section 4 of the contract, a copy of which was reviewed by The Black Star News, calls for payment for the work completed and also allows for the contractor to seek damages.

The city's initial objection was that Sentinel didn't post the bond required for the work. But under the terms of the contract Sentinel wasn't required to post the bond until it commenced Phase Two.

"It's amazing that this city is willing to waste hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayers' money on a legal defense it can't win," Horton tells The Black Star News. "As well as deprive the city of hundreds of badly needed jobs. They will derail the most comprehensive educational and green, science, training program and jobs campaign ever initiated through a joint collaboration of private and municipal participation."

The City is being represented by white-shoe Wall Street law firm Arent Fox.

Calls by The Black Star News to Mayor Thomas and to City Council President Marcus Griffith to get the city's side of the story were not returned.

Documents reviewed show that after completing the first phase, Sentinel sent the deliverables to the city with a cover letter dated June 4, 2015 addressed to then mayor Davis, to the president of the city council, Griffith, and, to the commissioner of the department of Public Works, Curtis Woods. The letters were time-stamped at Mt. Vernon City Hall.

Woods, in turn, sent Sentinel a letter dated June 11, 2015, certifying completion of the work.

"After receiving the Survey Audit and Comparison/Analysis Data of the sampling audit (484 lights), Phase 1 as described in Schedule A of the contract has been completed," states the letter of certification. "The audit sampling has been approved and you may proceed with Phase 2 of the contract."

Even though the contract stipulated that Sentinel would be paid the $450,000 the city started dragging its feet, records show. Notwithstanding what the contract stated, the city now demanded that Sentinel produce the bond, prior to payment for Phase One work.

In essence, the city was asking Sentinel to get bonding for work that it had already completed and paid for as certified by Commissioner Woods.

Horton notes that cash-strapped Mt. Vernon had not allocated enough money for the study.

"Sentinel did not even receive mobilization funding from the city," Horton said, due to its financial crisis. "Since then, they are trying to bamboozle Sentinel for this unprecedented study, benefit from it, and not pay for it now."

After Sentinel's team met with mayor Davis and the city's then corporation counsel, Lauren Raysor, Sentinel was paid the $113,000.

Sentinel continued its demand for payment.

Horton says it's ironic that Arent Fox is now trying to help get the city out of the contract considering that the firm was initially hired by Raysor, the city's former corporation counsel, to help vet the Sentinel deal before it was approved.

"Arent Fox’'s sole responsibility was to insure that all city due diligence had been performed correctly," Horton says. "In addition, Fox mandated that the only way they would provide the City with their final opinion letter, was to have Sentinel go through an additional scrutiny by the City Council and Board of Estimates approval. Which in itself was unprecedented."

"After they were charged with the responsibility to insure all legal processes were adhered to, they now have been hired to undo what they painstakingly performed so that no unforeseen entity could stake a claim of impropriety," he adds. "How can they now take issue with the very due diligence the taxpayers already paid a king's ransom for to guard the taxpayers?"

In Mt. Vernon, the board of estimates approves all payments by the city, whether it's for purchases of equipment, settlement of claims against the city, or specialized training for police officers.

According to the minutes of a board of estimates meeting held on December 15, 2015, city officials voted 2- 1 to approve the payment of the balance owed to Sentinel for the Phase One work completed. Mayor Davis and the Council president provided the majority; Maureen Walker, the comptroller, abstained.

Raysor, the corporation counsel, also backed the payment, saying the financing was coming from Capital One bank.

The minutes show the comptroller asking why the city was even voting on the Sentinel payment. Sentinel had already brought the funding source to the table and the monies were already approved and available, records show.

"The corporation counsel, Raysor, explained that they went through this redundant, exhaustive process just to prove to Capital One Bank that the city was on board," Horton added.

The minutes show that then mayor Davis also showed his frustration, complaining that the city had "lost a year of savings because of bureaucracy," apparently in reference to benefits that could have come from LED lighting.

"Arent Fox took the city, and tax payers through a litany of costly unnecessary billed hours," Horton added.

There has since been a breakdown in communication between the two sides since the new administration took office.

The new mayor ignored several requests by Percival Clarke, Sentinel's lawyer, for an in-person meeting to resolve the contract disputes, according to letters reviewed by The Black Star News.

Subsequently Arent Fox, the high-powered law firm, sent Clarke a letter dated Feb. 10, 2916, stating that the city was terminating the LED contract, alleging material breach.

Horton said the high-priced firm is taking the city and taxpayers on a merry-go-round ride.

The Black Star News couldn't determine how much Mt. Vernon has paid the firm for the on-going case since messages were not returned.

The city has an open-ended contract with the law firm.

"The contract clearly stipulates the only way the city can terminate it is if there is clear threat to public safety," Horton noted. "Arent Fox was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to illegally terminate a contract, that they were professionally, morally, and legally bound to advise the city that it could not do."

Now the matter is before Judge Alan D. Scheinkman who will likely rule by early July on Sentinel's motion for summary judgment.

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