The Insider

All Dried Up, Again
The Reverend James Dixon's career as operator of a city food concession was almost as brief -- and apparently just as successful -- as his bid to win elected office earlier this year.

Dixon is a politically influential minister whose support was crucial to Drayton McLane, Ken Lay and other downtown ballpark backers in securing African-American support of last November's stadium referendum. With the backing of McLane and Lay, Dixon later ran in the special election to fill the at-large Council seat vacated by the since-indicted John Peavy, but lost in a February runoff to Chris Bell.

Not too long after his defeat, Dixon entered into a deal with One's A Meal's Nick Xenakis and businessman David Marquez to operate the beverage and food concession at the city's Memorial Park Tennis Center. The nonprofit venture would serve as a source of employment for participants in Dixon's Good Gang USA, the youth program he runs out of his Northwest Community Baptist Church on Pinemont, and was to be the first of a series of contracts between Good Gang and the city to operate food and beverage outlets in other municipal parks.

Parks and Recreation Department director Bill Smith personally negotiated the contract to put Good Gang at Memorial Park, and Smith was enthusiastic enough about the undertaking to offer suggestions for what it should be named. Demonstrating that his particular expertise is not in marketing, Smith dispatched a memo to Dixon in May listing such highly imaginative prospective monikers as "Park Cafe," "Park Diner" and "Park Grill." Since the snack bar at Memorial had no capability to serve hot eats, or even tables to eat off of, the operators settled for the more lyrical -- and realistic -- "Oasis in the Park."

Although its initial contract with the city was for six months, Good Gang made an unannounced getaway at the end of August, closing down the snack bar and leaving a touching good-bye note on the counter explaining that Dixon's young workers had to go back to school. The surprise closure left parks department administrators puzzled and groping for a replacement concessionaire.

It's a position they've been in before. The previous concessionaire, Burke McConn, also closed his operation without notice early this year while owing nearly a year's back payments on the city's 10 percent share of the concession sales. McConn, the nephew of the late mayor Jim, had been chosen without competitive bidding. After he left, Smith selected Good Gang on the same no-bid basis in May.

Now the city has terminated its agreement with Good Gang and is searching for a temporary operator while preparing to solicit proposals for the concession, according to assistant parks director Sara Culbreth. Good Gang, meanwhile, owes the city an undisclosed share of the revenue it took in during its three months at Memorial and is being penalized an additional $10 a day until its account is cleared.

Earlier, Culbreth had helped pull the plug on an attempt by Good Gang to get the parks department to extend the concession to Moody and Burnett-Bayland parks. Culbreth says the concessionaires had signed and forwarded the additional contracts to Smith for his signature before she intervened.

"This was before we had any further discussions," Culbreth reminded Smith in a memo, and then pointed out that Good Gang had "no real performance history" and should be monitored at Memorial Park before being granted additional contracts.

Culbreth says she doesn't know whether the halting of those additional contracts led to Good Gang's decision to shut down its Memorial operation. But to hear Dixon tell it, the August closure had been scripted from the beginning.

"It's a summer job program for kids, and they've gone back to school," said the minister, who seems to have made no provision to replace his youthful employees once classes resumed. Keeping the Oasis open for the full duration of Good Gang's six-month contract was "too gigantic a challenge," Dixon added. "The daytime shift would have been totally unattended to, and then the kids have all kinds of extracurricular activities during the school year, so that would have made it very difficult."

When Dixon ran for Council he touted his creation of Good Gang as a credential for holding office. He claimed it provided jobs, employment training and housing for people within their own neighborhoods and involved 2,500 young people.

While parks officials are nonplused that Dixon apparently never thought past August when signing a six-month contract in May, the minister rejects the suggestion that he was shortsighted in his planning. In fact, Dixon says he's planning a celebration with the Good Gang youngsters that will also mark one of the shortest-lived concession contracts in city history.

"I think it worked out well," he insisted. "I think what we did in the summer months was splendid."

Maybe so, but if Dixon ever runs for office again, he'll have to persuade voters he'd be a much better public servant than he was a snack bar operator.

It's All Relative
Like the members of James Dixon's Good Gang, another group of young people has returned to school after completing summer jobs -- theirs in the slightly elevated office environs of the University of Texas Health Science Center in the Medical Center.

Among the summer hires were the offspring of Albert Gunn, UT's associate dean of admissions; Guy Clifton, chairman of the neurosurgery department; Rick Gaines, associate dean of management and administrative services; John Byrne, chairman of the neurobiology and anatomy department; Galen Marshall, assistant professor of internal medicine; and department of surgery professors John Teichgraeber and Charles Van Buren.

While UTHouston promotes the summer program as good community relations for the institution, at least one disgruntled UT employee says many of the jobs went to the children of faculty and staff who need the money the least.

"We were forced to put up with these kids all summer, while most sat around playing on the Net or talking on the phone all day," says the employee. "Most did very little work, and when they did work, it was B.S. we could do much quicker if we didn't have to baby-sit them."

Our correspondent describes a particularly galling scene -- watching one student regularly park his red Mercedes in the UT parking garage for $8 per day. "Imagine my surprise when I see this child who needs this job so he can learn how to be responsible driving out in a car that costs more than my house," the employee says.

Russ Wylie, the vice president of public affairs for UTHouston, sees nothing amiss with highly paid staff members placing their children on the institution's summer payroll.

"I think anyone, regardless of their compensation, would find summer work good for their children," says Wylie. "I don't think there's anything unusual about that. In fact, I think they should be applauded for having their children work."

Yeah, but if the kid's going to work at your place of business, why not make like the Mosbachers and do it on your own dime?

Rice School Redux
HISD administrators have settled on Californian Sharon Valear Robinson as the new principal for the Rice School, that turbulent educational partnership between Rice University and the school district that was the subject of a cover story in the Press last month.

An African-American educational psychologist who has been principal of two schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Robinson was chosen for the job from a final pool of three candidates. Her selection angered at least one member of the task force appointed by HISD to interview candidates for the job, who insists a majority of the group favored reinstating former principal Sharon Koonce. HISD ousted Koonce, along with her two assistant principals, after the spring semester.

Meanwhile, the lingering controversy over the principalship provoked a revelation from Rice University president Malcolm Gillis about his institution's role in the school. In a letter replying to one parent who asked for his assistance in getting Koonce reinstated, Gillis let it be known that he had opposed naming the public elementary/middle school after the nearby private university.

"I pleaded with HISD not to name the school after William Marsh Rice precisely because I was concerned about the impression that would convey," wrote Gillis. "I relented in the end only after the school was formally named."

Gillis also stated that Rice had "no formal relationship with the Rice School that would allow me to intercede on behalf of Ms. Koonce ... even so, I remain willing to do what we can to help Rice School, short of assuming responsibility for hiring and firing its leadership."

HISD seems to be quite willing to take care of the hiring and firing part. Now if Rice University and the school district could only focus on the education part ...

Let's Get Engaged
Cathy Mincberg was among the cabal of HISD trustees who secretly engineered the selection of Rod Paige as district superintendent back in 1994, a move that angered and alienated a large swath of the city's Hispanic community. Mincberg left the board in 1995, when she and her family moved out of the southwest Houston district she represented, but now she's back: Paige has personally selected Mincberg to fill the exalted new position of "director of community engagement," a gig for which she'll be paid $59,000 under a one-year contract.

According to HISD, Paige chose Mincberg from 110 applicants for the job. Her duties will include "developing opportunities for parents and the community to express opinions about their experiences with schools and share their goals for public education ... In addition, Dr. Mincberg will manage the development, distribution and analysis of 'customer' surveys to be completed by employees, students, parents and community members."

No word yet on whether Mincberg will be engaging Hispanics when HISD goes back to voters to again ask them to approve school construction bonds.

Defending Her Virtue
It probably won't rate the national attention given to Sylvester Turner's libel lawsuit, but Channel 13's Wayne Dolcefino is once again the target of litigation, this time by an employee of City Controller Lloyd Kelley.

In a suit she filed last week, Cynthia Everett Randolph accuses Dolcefino of defaming her in his recent series of reports on Kelley's rather unusual work habits. Channel 13's hidden camera caught Kelley during work hours as the controller toiled in his yard, walked his dog and visited the SplashTown amusement park in the company of Randolph and his children.

Among Randolph's allegations is her claim that Dolcefino's broadcast "left the distinct impression in the viewer's mind that Ms. Randolph, a recently married member of the Second Baptist Church, and Mr. Kelley, the Houston city controller and a married man, were involved in an affair." As a result, Randolph says, her "honor, integrity and chastity" have been im-pugned, and she has lost the respect of neighbors and acquaintances.

So far, the thrice-married Kelley has not sued Dolcefino for impugning his chastity, but, hey, he's still got plenty of time before the statute of limitations on such a suit runs out.

The Insider will be grabbing some much-needed R&R over the next few weeks, but in his absence you can still drop a dime on the malefactors by calling (713) 624-1483 or faxing that unauthorized material to (713) 624-1496.

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