Insider

Not Ready for Prime Time. Continental may have taught the mayor how to fly right

Mayor Lee Brown has been in the city cockpit nearly two years, but his flying skills don't seem to be improving. Anyone seeking proof need look no further than the administration's breathtakingly bungled confrontation with Continental Airlines last month over the selection of a team to build more than $400 million worth of improvements at Bush Intercontinental Airport.

If Continental ran its business in similar fashion, we'd be picking through airliner wreckage on our way to work.

Brown's dogfight with one of the city's largest employers didn't last too long. He quickly discovered he didn't have the votes to push the airport expansion deal through City Council. A week after the dispute became public, Brown insisted on a face-saving meeting with Continental CEO Gordon Bethune and then ran up the white flag. The expansion project would be re-evaluated, declared the mayor, with the airline getting a seat on the committee selecting the firms to do the work.

Continental's air war bested Brown.
Scott Gilbert
Continental's air war bested Brown.

When the smoke cleared, investigators blamed pilot error for the crash of the mayor's political machine.

"They went all out on this, and they couldn't find their rears with two hands," says a Brown ally. "It was a remarkably inept performance, to my mind."

Another friend of Lee Brown laments that the mayor's political learning curve has been down more often than up.

"It's the Achilles heel of the Brown administration," says this source. "He has personally no political instincts, and there's nobody around him that he trusts or has close enough to him to make those kinds of decisions."

During the fracas, Brown damaged his credibility by repeatedly making statements to reporters that seemed false. After the controversy went public, the mayor held a news conference and declared he was unaware of the details of the airport project and denied that architects or other contractors had been chosen. In fact, the lineup for the project teams had been set since last January, when Continental officials dug in their heels, and Brown rebuffed efforts by airline officials to compromise on the dispute.

A number of municipal players had privately expressed to the mayor their misgivings about the handling of the matter in the preceding months. They could only chuckle at his later claims of noninvolvement and watch to see if the mayor's nose was growing with each questionable statement.

A Brown administration topsider confirms that in a series of meetings involving the mayor, public works director Jerry King argued that the administration could win the fight by mobilizing the contractors to pressure City Council. In fact, the strategy backfired. When King went looking for votes, he discovered the tactic only angered elected officials and solidified Council opposition. He returned to the mayor empty-handed.

The dispute between Brown and the airline began in earnest early this year. Steven Smith, a former Continental construction project supervisor who now is the city's deputy aviation director, began putting together the teams that would design, manage and build the airport expansion. The project had four major components, including roadways and utilities, the expansion of the Leland terminal to accommodate domestic and foreign flights, and the construction of a federal inspection services building and a parking garage.

Continental contended that several of the firms chosen as team leaders, known as "primes," were inexperienced for their assigned jobs. One was Morris Architects, a Houston firm with minimal airport design experience. It had received a small contract for $2.7 million in 1992 to survey improvements to the airport terminals. The contract was eventually expanded to $17 million. Somehow, without any additional requests for qualifications, the mayor's men assembled a smorgasbord of contractors under Morris's leadership. That team was heavily spiced with minority companies, including the ESPA engineering firm, owned by one of Brown's closest political allies, Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee.

Mayor Brown had already told his department heads that he wanted qualified minority firms whenever possible to be considered for prime rather than subcontractor roles. After limiting the candidates for lead architect to only small firms, Smith says, the firm of African-American John S. Chase was judged the most qualified for the customs building assignment.

City aviation director Rick Vacar says the goal was to take firms that had only traditional subcontractor roles and give them prime assignments to build their experience and credentials.

"Chase is not perfectly qualified to do the whole thing," concedes Vacar, "but in a team arrangement, they are perfectly qualified. They hadn't had the experience as a stand-alone before."

To provide that experience, the Houston firm PGAL was brought in as a backup. PGAL is building customs facilities at several other U.S. airports. According to one of those in on the deal, Chase planned to use PGAL rather than hire additional staff. Vacar says that with the help Chase shouldn't have any problems with the federal inspection station project.

"Basically, when you look at an [inspection station], it is basically a rectangular box. Now, an architectural firm can build a box."

That isn't quite how an executive for a firm that has built such facilities sees it. "An international terminal and a federal inspection station is a very sensitive, complex project," says this source. He notes such plans have to be run past the airlines involved, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "It's just something you don't want first-time architects doing."

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