Fore!

Privatization of Houston's municipal golf courses has been a bad deal for everybody but the operators. But golfers and taxpayers had best look out: the city's on the verge of giving away two more of it courses.

It's a beautiful day for golf, and the links at Sharpstown Park have been buzzing since the early-bird seniors teed off at the crack of dawn. Regulars in tennis shoes nod polite greetings from cart seats or pause on the fairway for a quick chat; the faint, rattling plock of balls finding their resting places can be heard in the cool breeze. Whether you're a duffer or have a single-digit handicap, conditions are near perfect for a leisurely 18 holes.

But the pastoral scene of contented gents ambling over the well-tended turf doesn't quite match the mood in the clubhouse. Some of Sharpstown's most avid golfers are angry, and their anger has nothing to do with how they fared out on the back nine. Among the most vocal is Jim Goodson, who lives just a few swings down the road from the course. For more than a year, Goodson and other golfers have been doing battle with the city, which is angling to turn Sharpstown, as well as the Brock Park course on the city's northeast side, over to private operators.

"My fight is to keep the son of a bitch where the damn people can have it," Goodson says.

A onetime Air Force gunner who spent 21 months as a POW in Stalag 17, the 69-year-old Goodson makes a formidable opponent. And he's armed to the teeth with evidence that privatizing the course is a bad deal for the city and will cost taxpayers in the neighborhood of $500,000 a year. That may be just a drop in the city's budget, says Goodson, his frown magnified by a spider's web of lines radiating down from his mouth, but "half a million dollars is still half a million dollars. It's a big hunk of money."

Goodson isn't alone in his assessment. The city's Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees the municipal golf courses, has studied the issue repeatedly and concluded that the deal is a money-loser. But that hasn't deterred parks director Bill Smith, who has suppressed the numbers while guiding the effort to privatize the courses.

Smith's actions are especially curious in light of the opinion he offered of the privatization proposal back in June 1994, when Sharpstown and Brock were first placed on the block in a budget amendment submitted by then-councilman Ben Reyes. In a memo to Jimmie Schindewolf, Mayor Bob Lanier's co-chief of staff and head of the city's Public Works and Engineering Department, Smith wrote, "Course location, configuration and sizable capital improvement needs make these courses the least desirable choices for privatization." For those and other reasons, he concluded at the time, "this amendment should be rejected."

But 19 months later, Smith's department has recommended a contract to turn the operation of Sharpstown and Brock over to the Lopez Management Group. The contract currently is being negotiated with the city's Legal Department -- the final step before it is presented to City Council for what seems to be certain approval.

The impending gift of the two courses would only be the city's latest dubious achievement in its stewardship of public courses. Interviews and documents obtained by the Press also show that:

*The 1991 privatization of four city-owned courses -- Gus Wortham, Hermann, Melrose and Glenbrook, which already is managed by the Lopez Management Group -- was intended to increase revenue for the city and result in better playing conditions for the public. It has achieved the opposite.

*The city has given Lopez Management Group substantial breaks in the past. Lopez's original proposal for Glenbrook offered the city a solid return, but the contract both parties eventually signed was worth considerably less, including a reduction of the minimum guarantee to the city by $1.36 million. A review of the documents suggests serious irregularities in the process.

*Despite public objections to giving away Sharpstown and Brock, and despite Smith's unwillingness to produce figures even after requests from councilmembers to do so, those same councilmembers have never raised a peep in protest. Rather, they've either turned a deaf ear or even helped grease the wheels for the golf course giveaway.

*Lanier has followed the deal from the beginning and seen the numbers, but nonetheless seems poised to bless the privatization.

Though none of the principals were willing to say what's really going on -- Smith and Art Lopez, who operates Lopez Management Group with one of his brothers and their father, both refused to be interviewed by the Press -- it appears that politics, which have dominated municipal golf decisions for years, may again be clouding the city's judgment. For example, Smith, in a September 7 memo to Lanier, included a study by an outside consultant that painted a dim picture of the proposals to privatize Sharpstown and Brock. He also noted that a revised proposal submitted by the Lopez Management Group "will not fall within the suggested guidelines from the consultants."

So what was Smith's conclusion?
"I have discussed the above ... with [then-Lanier co-chief of staff] Dave Walden and [city Finance and Administration director] Richard Lewis, and we all three are of the opinion that we should present a contract with Lopez Management Group Inc. for both Brock and Sharpstown courses after the election" [emphasis added].

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