The Insider

Witham had already had his duties at the department drastically reduced after raising questions in late 1995 about the proposed privatization of two city golf courses. Last week, parks director Bill Smith administered the coup de grace and fired the veteran employee.

Witham was unavailable for comment on his dismissal, but a parks department memo supplied to The Insider indicates Witham was used by department higher-ups as a scapegoat for the bungling of the concession. The operator, Trensidea System's Burke McConn, nephew of the late mayor Jim, was signed to a six-month extension last December even though he had fallen nearly a year behind in paying the city its percentage of sales at the Tennis Center. Numerous complaints had been made to parks officials about the concession's shoddy operation. Whereas Culbreth told us that Witham had signed the new contract with McConn without her knowledge, the memo from Culbreth to Witham concerning food and beverage concessions (one that the parks department did not include among documents supplied in response to an open records request from the Press) tells a different story.

The memo is dated October 21 of last year, some two weeks before McConn's concession agreement extension was signed by parks director Smith. In it Culbreth instructs Witham to "please continue to negotiate renewals for these contracts/ agreements as they expire and have the renewal documents prepared for the director's approval ..... If (requests for proposals) become necessary, we will notify you."

The copy of the city concession agreement with McConn bears only the signatures of McConn and Smith, with no indication that Witham had anything to do with it, other than following Culbreth's orders to prepare an agreement and send it to Smith for approval.

Culbreth claims that now she's on the case and will sort out problems in the department's concession contracts. Yet her first step at Memorial was to continue the tradition of inking politically connected vendors for city deals without engaging in the troublesome process of competitive bidding. The team now running the Tennis Center food and drink concession includes none other than the Reverend James Dixon, the loser to Chris Bell in the special election earlier this year to replace the retiring at-large Councilman John Peavy. Peavy's seat opened, as you'll recall, after an ethics controversy erupted over his failure to divest himself of a city airport ice-cream shop concession.

According to Culbreth, Dixon's nonprofit Good Gang USA Incorporated and Nick Bibas of One's A Meal received the concession without competitive bidding simply because "they approached us with a proposal." If that's standard operating procedure at parks and rec, vendors desiring concessions will have to consult psychics or rent a crystal ball to guess when city deals are available.

The young members of Dixon's Good Gang are staffing the concession, which as of this week was again cheerfully churning out yogurt smoothies -- with only a slight aftertaste of behind-the-scenes politics.

Barton's Tough Love Boat...
If the idea of mixing sand, sea, and conservative rhetoric is your cup of Caribbean rum, consider this package tour being put together by Congressman Joe Barton, the Republican from Ennis.

"Every year I try to do something special for my congressional council members and my core group of Barton Backers," wrote the congressman to his campaign faithful. One year it was an intimate Dallas dinner with House Speaker Newt Gingrich, explained Barton. Then there was that special excursion to the Capitol to see a charity baseball game. In 1994, Barton hosted a series of seminars during which his boosters could draw inspiration from Texas Senators Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison, among others.

But this year Barton's thinking more along the lines of Speed 3. "I wanted to try something new, exciting and ambitious," the congressman enthused in his missive. "I came up with the idea of getting together some high profile speakers to interact with my Barton Backers in the Caribbean on a cruise! What do you think about that?"

Apparently the reaction was strong enough for Barton to schedule a four-day cruise next January that will take his backers to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the islands of St. Thomas and St. Martin. For those of you who are interested, the congressman's campaign spokesman says there are still openings available.

Mind Pollution
It was probably inevitable that once HISD Superintendent Rod Paige decreed that district administrators down to the principal level should undergo Model-Netics training [The Insider, "Hook-ed on Model-Netics," March 13], the corporate psychobabble would start seeping into the student thought stream as well. Witness last month's district announcement bulletin, which reported on a float designed by Burbank Elementary students to celebrate Asian heritage.

" 'Orient Express on the Move' was the theme of the Burbank float," according to the bulletin, "which reflected both the balanced approach to reading and the 'northbound train' of Model-Netics."

For those not in the know, in the Model-Netics jargon "Northbound Train" means "get with the program or get left behind."

"It takes an unbalanced approach to reading to associate the Orient Express (Vienna to Istanbul) with Asian heritage," observed one acerbic district critic, who terms Model-Netics "corporate bullspeak." Continues our correspondent: "Are they teaching the children this hideous language now?"

We're not sure, but if your young HISD student starts asking about "The Cruel Sea," "The Decision Diamond" or "The Tomato Plant Problem," better seek professional help for the kid immediately.

...Or call The Insider at 624-1483 or 624-1496 (fax), or e-mail him at Insider@houston-press.com.

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