Rockets Court Date?

The NAACP rattles sabers in the arena vendor disputes

While the Houston Rockets battle down the stretch for a position in the NBA playoffs, another sort of court date may await them. If the Houston chapter of the NAACP has its way, the contest could take place at the Harris County Civil Courthouse.

Houston NAACP Executive Director Yolanda Smith has faxed the chapter's 32 board members a draft resolution to petition the national NAACP to sue Rockets owner Les Alexander. The resolution notes that Alexander signed an agreement in September 2000 promising minority, women and disadvantaged business enterprises (MWDBE) 30 percent of the work in the construction and operation of the downtown arena. The NAACP's draft resolution accuses Alexander of failing to make a good-faith effort to achieve those goals -- and calls for legal action against him.

"We can't take legal action until we get approval from the national board," explains Smith. "The Rockets have not met their goals. They are reneging, and quite frankly, Les Alexander is not meeting" with minority leaders, "and that's a problem."

Smith expects the local board to give its blessing to the lawsuit at a meeting next week.

As previously detailed in The Insider (see "Rocket Rodney," March 6), minority leaders are upset that the Rockets appear to be backing off that 30 percent pledge. The Rockets had signed the agreement with the NAACP and other groups to secure their support in the election on the referendum to approve building the arena.

In a presentation earlier this year to the board of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, Rockets consultant and state Senator Rodney Ellis set off alarm bells in talking about MWDBE participation. He outlined how the Rockets intended to operate all food and beverage outlets at the new downtown arena, and minorities would make their money providing bulk supplies like napkins or meat. According to the figures Ellis presented, minorities would get far less than the stipulated percentage of the action that Alexander promised when he was out grubbing for votes.

"If Alexander is going to sign a binding contract," says the NAACP's Smith, "we certainly feel he needs to honor that and continue in the same spirit that he had then, when he needed us for the referendum to be approved. Now that it's a done deal and ready to open, don't renege."

Rockets spokesman Bill Miller denies that the Rockets are backing off the 30 percent commitment. "We've exceeded the contracts to date on the construction phase, and we'll meet and exceed those on the operational phase," says the Austin-based lobbyist. "The lawsuit will be without merit, and I don't know why [the NAACP] would do that since they already know that."

If it does get to court, the litigation could put Ellis, Houston's only black state senator, in the ticklish position of defending his client, the Rockets, against the hometown NAACP. Now, that's a playoff contest Houston political junkies would pay good money to see. -- Tim Fleck

 
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