Double Bogey

A young parks worker gets caught up in a contractor's sweetheart deal

Adrienne Crispin had worked at the city's parks department less than three weeks when she was assigned to rewrite its contract for Glenbrook Golf Course. For 12 years, Lopez Management had run the municipal course, giving the city a percentage of the proceeds in return. Crispin was supposed to amend the contract for six more years.

It sounds simple, but it wasn't. Crispin, 29, was nervous about the assignment.

The recent law school graduate had yet to pass the bar, and she thought her job was to supervise contracts -- not rewrite them. Her fears only escalated, she says, when her new bosses gave her a directive: Remove the clause that allows the city to fire Lopez at its convenience.

Crispin was confused. A former assistant in the city's legal department, she knew the clause was standard, if rarely invoked, a way for the city to escape troubled contracts without the rigors of proving good cause.

She e-mailed Assistant City Attorney Greg Mathews, who confirmed her suspicions. "Do not delete that clause," he replied. "The City always wants the option to back out."

Apparently not in this case. When Crispin balked, so did her supervisors. Purchasing supervisor Eric Denton gave her a verbal warning, according to records. "I indicated that when you're asked to do certain things, it is because someone including myself needed them to get done," Denton stated in an October 13 memo. "Someone higher than me" wanted the clause removed, Denton wrote.

Parks officials aren't talking about who wanted the change, and now Crispin is gone. Three weeks after the warning, she was demoted, then fired when she walked out of the meeting to discuss the demotion, according to city documents.

Lopez Management hardly earned raves after taking over Glenbrook in 1991. The administrations of then-mayor Kathy Whitmire and her successor, Bob Lanier, argued that private contractors could eliminate hassles and increase profits at city golf links. But in a review of course privatization four years later, the city's finance and administration director wrote that Houston could make more money running them itself (see "In the Rough" and "Fore!" by Bob Burtman, January 11, 1996, and February 1, 1996).

Even worse were findings from an audit completed last year on Lopez's contract compliance. It concluded that Lopez failed to complete key contract provisions, such as building a driving range, hiring a PGA-certified pro and paying for water use. (To be fair, while the city announced it would start charging Lopez for water in 1999, it never sent a bill. In the two years following the edict, Lopez used $370,000 of water, according to the audit.)

The audit also criticized Lopez's bookkeeping, noting that the company had no supporting documentation for 84 percent of the renovations it claimed to have made.

The driving range still hasn't been built. And instead of pushing Lopez, the city waived the PGA pro requirement and decided not to charge for water after all, according to records. In a recent review, the city noted that charging for water use could lead course operators to save money by scrimping -- hardly a vote of confidence.

Art Lopez, who owns the company, defends his record. When he first won the contract, he says, the city had just rehabbed Glenbrook, so it "made no sense to tear it up to build a driving range." But now is the time, he says, and he's ready to go.

The city evidently agrees. At least three councilmembers say they know of other contractors interested in running Glenbrook, but in November the parks department asked City Council to re-sign with Lopez without taking other bids.

And if the old deal was good for Lopez, the new one is even sweeter. Consider:The old contract required council to sign off on any increase in greens fees. The new one lets Lopez make the call.

The old contract required Lopez to pay the city an average of 9.2 percent of its revenues. The new one should average just 8 percent.

The old one allowed the city to charge Lopez for water. The new one doesn't.

Lopez defends the contract's terms: "My revenues are down. Golf is about 35 to 40 percent off," he says. "I'm not interested in making $20 million on this deal. I just want to break even." (Glenbrook grossed about $1.4 million in 2000, according to city records. From that total, Lopez paid the city $132,470; the company's profit would be anything left after covering salaries, supplies and other costs.)

At-Large Councilman Gordon Quan found plenty to question about the contract proposal. Many contracts encourage productivity by offering contractors a bigger share of the purse when they earn higher profits. This one doesn't: Lopez must give the city 7.5 percent of profits up to $1 million; only after that does the city's percentage escalate.

There's also that driving range. The new contract simply states that Lopez should either build a range or spend $60,000 on something else. It never mentions that the "something else" was supposed to have been settled two years before and paid for under the old contract.

Finally, there was the issue of dropping the clause that would allow the city to terminate Lopez at its convenience.

Assistant City Attorney Jo Wiginton concedes that such clauses are standard in city contracts: "Our policy is that we always try to get language in there like that."

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