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."
Despite the legal department's preference, Wiginton adds, the parks department has the final say. But Parks Director Roksan Okan-Vick chose not to explain why the clause is missing. She referred all questions to the office of then-mayor Lee Brown. They referred questions right back: Despite promising to provide answers for two weeks, various spokesmen offered no information beyond noting that it was parks officials who negotiated the specifics.
Whatever behind-the-scenes maneuvering had occurred, City Council itself was well aware of the plan to delete the basic clause. A week before the vote, the public speaker's portion of the council session featured Crispin herself, armed with the e-mail from Mathews and the tale of her warning and demotion.
"I wanted to expose the truth to them and the real reason why I was released from my position," Crispin explains. She was convinced council would listen, just because she says that's what she would have done.
Crispin grew up dreaming of becoming a lawyer, then a judge. It was heady stuff for a girl raised in Forkland, Alabama, population 667, the daughter of a teacher and diesel mechanic. Her confidence in the future stemmed from strong religious beliefs. "That's a vision God has given me," she says.
She earned her JD at Texas Southern's Thurgood Marshall School of Law, then toiled for two years as a legal assistant for the city. She hadn't passed the bar, but she was still looking for more money and more responsibility. "I didn't want to just sit there," she says. "I wanted to be active."
So she was receptive when a parks supervisor, Diane Deaton, came calling to suggest she apply for a job as a contracts compliance officer. The move seemed like a no-brainer: The job came with a $13,000 raise, bringing her salary to $39,000.
Ironically, in the letter recommending that parks officials hire Crispin, purchasing manager Maggie Mottesheard noted that Crispin had a "good working relationship with the Legal Department staff, which would be so beneficial" to the parks department.
Instead, those ties triggered the showdown over the contract. Crispin's resistance to remove the contract termination clause annoyed supervisors, who started riding her, she says.
Crispin began having panic attacks, which her bosses did little to quell. She says supervisor Deaton warned her of her probationary status: "When we say jump, you need to say, 'How high?' " When she was finally called into a meeting with Mottesheard and told she was being demoted and her salary cut back to $26,000, she walked out without regrets.
Crispin's personnel file contains no record of poor performance or discipline. "She was always pleasant, always a happy one," says another parks employee, who asked not to be named. "She had nothing 'smart' to say to anyone. But they just took her life away from her. They had no good cause to fire her, and I'll say that to anyone who asks."
But few have bothered to ask much -- about either Crispin's episode or the golf course deal itself.
Councilman Quan, the only person who seemed to take Crispin's story seriously, says council was asked to approve the 65-page Glenbrook contract without even seeing it until the morning of the scheduled vote. "It was a pretty lengthy contract," he says, "but everyone was saying, 'Can't we just take care of it today?' "
Quan refused, delaying the vote for a week so he could look into it. Still, when he set up a meeting with parks officials, he didn't get many answers. When he asked about Lopez's previous problems with contract compliance, they told him they didn't have the personnel, he says, and that's why they hired Crispin.
"They needed more help, but the person they hired to do the contract, they ended up firing," he says. But parks officials didn't seem overly troubled by his concern, he says. "They said, 'We have the votes lined up, and it's going to go through.' "
A familiar face at various fund-raisers, Lopez wrote generous checks to Lee Brown and Councilmembers Carol Alvarado and Mark Ellis, according to campaign records. Ellis tried to give Lopez and some of his friends a piece of an airport concession contract earlier this fall; it took an angry Brown to stop the deal.
Lopez insists he's not getting special favors with Glenbrook. "I've got a lot of friends," he concedes. "The majority of [council] knows me. But they know I'm capable and I take care of business. They know I try to keep the rates down."
Annise Parker, the at-large councilwoman and controller-elect, noted that the finance department had no problems with the contract, and neither did she. Ellis also defended it, explaining that Glenbrook is "the only privatized golf course that's actually generated money for the city." Their counterpart, Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, says she believed all questions about the contract had been addressed.
Crispin's presentation to council about being pressured to change the contract and then being fired drew little more than yawns from those officials.
"We have a lot of people come down before council," Parker says. "I don't know what her issues are. You have to show us something." Sekula-Gibbs says Crispin seemed like a "disgruntled employee."
On November 26, the parks officials' predictions became reality -- they indeed had the votes. The revised contract passed with only Quan voting against it. Lopez would run Glenbrook for at least six more years.
Crispin remains relentlessly positive. She stresses her religious beliefs to the point of invoking Bible verses in response to almost any question. But her faith sounds almost vengeful when she talks about how the city treated her: "Just because they're getting away with this now...," she says, "God sees all. God knows all."
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Crispin was notified last month that the city had denied her claim for unemployment benefits. She was always thrifty, but she's almost run through her savings; soon, she says, she plans to be out of Texas for good.
"My parents stayed at their jobs for 20 to 30 years at a time," she says. "I wanted to be a faithful person like that, to work my way up the ladder."
That was before the confrontation over the golf course, which confirms that Lopez is still a force at City Hall.
"I know he's a player," Councilman Quan says. "But a lot of people play, and they don't get this kind of deal."