Golfin' Fools

Another dubious deal for private operators raises the question: Who's serving the public here?

There's something about Houston's municipal golf courses that brings out the worst in the city's public officials. Less than two years ago, the Lanier administration tried to orchestrate the giveaway of the Sharpstown and Brock courses to a private operator, despite numerous internal reports warning that the deal was a loser for the city. Various other privatization attempts have been marred by scandal, and the track records of the private operators who have managed to get their hands on city courses have been mixed at best.

All that was supposed to have changed with the creation of the Houston Municipal Golf Association Committee, a group of community golf enthusiasts and city employees appointed by Mayor Bob Lanier. The committee was to explore the possibility of establishing a nonprofit corporation to run the city's courses, similar to a model developed in Baltimore that has exceeded all expectations since its creation more than a decade ago.

That's what the committee did, issuing a report in September that recommended a long-term strategy for the city's courses. The nonprofit Houston Municipal Golf Association would run the three courses currently managed by the city -- Memorial, Sharpstown and Brock -- and would evaluate the contracts of the four privately managed courses as they expired. Presumably, if the corporation proved a success, those courses would also be brought under its wing. The private operators, who have profited nicely from their deals over the years, would move on to other ventures.

At last the city seemed poised to accomplish what political wrangling and insider trading had prevented for years -- Houston's golf courses would be united by a single vision designed to maximize the return to the public.

That notion lasted about a week.
With virtually no public discussion or input, the Parks and Recreation Department presented a proposal to the City Council on September 23 that would leave Hermann Park Golf Course in the hands of the current private operator, BSL Golf Corporation, for the next 20 years. In exchange for the unprecedented 20-year pact, BSL would pump $3.6 million into the course, up front, and pay the city a minimum annual rent that would start at $100,000 and increase a bit each year.

Those pushing the BSL deal say there's simply no time to carefully weigh the pluses and minuses of tying up one of the city's courses well into the next century -- a refrain that's become familiar for significant projects sprung upon the Council with little advance warning (see Cotswold). "Time is of the essence," warns a summary of the proposal prepared by the Friends of Hermann Park.

Whether or not the clock is ticking toward some real or artificial deadline (see Drayton McLane and the new downtown ballpark), time certainly wouldn't be so essential if the proposal had been aired when it first came to the city's attention more than a year and a half ago. Unfortunately, the person who learned the details was Parks and Recreation director Bill Smith, who apparently decided that an open discussion of the issue would be too bothersome.

You'd think Smith would have learned his lesson. This is the second golfing fiasco enveloping the Parks and Recreation Department director, the mention of whose name draws derisive scorn around City Hall. It was Smith who rejected the findings of his own staff in the Sharpstown and Brock debacle in favor of a weak proposal from Lopez Management Group, which eventually imploded when it was exposed by the Press.

At the time, Smith was criticized for keeping the details secret from the City Council. Likewise, Smith failed to notify the Council's parks committee of the Hermann proposal -- even though he had been in the middle of the negotiations with BSL since the spring of 1996.

"The parks committee would like to have that kind of information before it goes to Council," says committee member Martha Wong, who only learned of the proposal several days before it came up for approval.

As always, Smith refused to comment. He did have his proxy, department spokeswoman Susan Christian, craft answers to a few questions submitted by the Press in writing. Asked why he didn't bring up the issue at a parks committee meeting, Christian wrote that Smith did in fact mention the deal to committee chairman John Kelley, though she didn't say when.

The decision to recommend the 20-year contract with BSL apparently rested with Smith, at least according to mayoral aides Dan Jones and John Baldwin. They say Smith presented them with the plan as pretty much a done deal, and asked them to review it to ensure the city's position was protected. Exploring options wasn't on the agenda.

Options, of course, do exist. The city could have entertained proposals from any qualified bidder who wanted to run the course and chosen the one that offered the greatest return. But Lanier told the Chronicle that an outside consultant had reviewed the proposed BSL contract and determined that bidding out the deal wasn't in the city's best interest.

That consultant, Economic Research Associates of Los Angeles, did indeed review the BSL proposal, but the company's two reports -- the second of which was dated September 22, the day before the contract came before Council for approval -- said absolutely nothing about competitive bidding.

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