It's a beautiful day for golf, and the links at Sharpstown Park have been buzzing since the early-bird seniors teed off at the crack of dawn. Regulars in tennis shoes nod polite greetings from cart seats or pause on the fairway for a quick chat; the faint, rattling plock of balls finding their resting places can be heard in the cool breeze. Whether you're a duffer or have a single-digit handicap, conditions are near perfect for a leisurely 18 holes.
But the pastoral scene of contented gents ambling over the well-tended turf doesn't quite match the mood in the clubhouse. Some of Sharpstown's most avid golfers are angry, and their anger has nothing to do with how they fared out on the back nine. Among the most vocal is Jim Goodson, who lives just a few swings down the road from the course. For more than a year, Goodson and other golfers have been doing battle with the city, which is angling to turn Sharpstown, as well as the Brock Park course on the city's northeast side, over to private operators.
"My fight is to keep the son of a bitch where the damn people can have it," Goodson says.
A onetime Air Force gunner who spent 21 months as a POW in Stalag 17, the 69-year-old Goodson makes a formidable opponent. And he's armed to the teeth with evidence that privatizing the course is a bad deal for the city and will cost taxpayers in the neighborhood of $500,000 a year. That may be just a drop in the city's budget, says Goodson, his frown magnified by a spider's web of lines radiating down from his mouth, but "half a million dollars is still half a million dollars. It's a big hunk of money."
Goodson isn't alone in his assessment. The city's Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees the municipal golf courses, has studied the issue repeatedly and concluded that the deal is a money-loser. But that hasn't deterred parks director Bill Smith, who has suppressed the numbers while guiding the effort to privatize the courses.
Smith's actions are especially curious in light of the opinion he offered of the privatization proposal back in June 1994, when Sharpstown and Brock were first placed on the block in a budget amendment submitted by then-councilman Ben Reyes. In a memo to Jimmie Schindewolf, Mayor Bob Lanier's co-chief of staff and head of the city's Public Works and Engineering Department, Smith wrote, "Course location, configuration and sizable capital improvement needs make these courses the least desirable choices for privatization." For those and other reasons, he concluded at the time, "this amendment should be rejected."
But 19 months later, Smith's department has recommended a contract to turn the operation of Sharpstown and Brock over to the Lopez Management Group. The contract currently is being negotiated with the city's Legal Department -- the final step before it is presented to City Council for what seems to be certain approval.
The impending gift of the two courses would only be the city's latest dubious achievement in its stewardship of public courses. Interviews and documents obtained by the Press also show that:
*The 1991 privatization of four city-owned courses -- Gus Wortham, Hermann, Melrose and Glenbrook, which already is managed by the Lopez Management Group -- was intended to increase revenue for the city and result in better playing conditions for the public. It has achieved the opposite.
*The city has given Lopez Management Group substantial breaks in the past. Lopez's original proposal for Glenbrook offered the city a solid return, but the contract both parties eventually signed was worth considerably less, including a reduction of the minimum guarantee to the city by $1.36 million. A review of the documents suggests serious irregularities in the process.
*Despite public objections to giving away Sharpstown and Brock, and despite Smith's unwillingness to produce figures even after requests from councilmembers to do so, those same councilmembers have never raised a peep in protest. Rather, they've either turned a deaf ear or even helped grease the wheels for the golf course giveaway.
*Lanier has followed the deal from the beginning and seen the numbers, but nonetheless seems poised to bless the privatization.
Though none of the principals were willing to say what's really going on -- Smith and Art Lopez, who operates Lopez Management Group with one of his brothers and their father, both refused to be interviewed by the Press -- it appears that politics, which have dominated municipal golf decisions for years, may again be clouding the city's judgment. For example, Smith, in a September 7 memo to Lanier, included a study by an outside consultant that painted a dim picture of the proposals to privatize Sharpstown and Brock. He also noted that a revised proposal submitted by the Lopez Management Group "will not fall within the suggested guidelines from the consultants."
So what was Smith's conclusion?
"I have discussed the above ... with [then-Lanier co-chief of staff] Dave Walden and [city Finance and Administration director] Richard Lewis, and we all three are of the opinion that we should present a contract with Lopez Management Group Inc. for both Brock and Sharpstown courses after the election" [emphasis added].
Not everyone on the inside views the move favorably. Gene Hill, a former golf pro at Glenbrook who will be retiring at the end of this month from the Parks and Recreation Department, was dismayed when Smith and other officials did a 180-degree turn on the proposed privatization, even after their own studies pointed in the other direction.
"What changed their mind overnight?" Hill asks with no small trace of disgust. "It's unbelievable what they're doing."
Sharpstown golfer Jim Goodson finds the city's actions more maddening than a triple bogey, and he's made it his mission to expose the truth. "When the water gets that muddy," he says, "there's damn likely to be something swimming underneath you don't want to be seen."
The move to privatize Houston's municipal golf courses began in the late 1980s, well before the current enthusiasm for privatization swept the country. And unlike today, the impetus was less philosophical than practical. For years, the courses had been run as personal fiefdoms by politically connected pros who paid the city any green fees they collected and kept all other income, including golf cart rentals, driving range fees and concessions.
The city made little profit from this arrangement, but for those fortunate enough to control one of the courses, the return could be quite lucrative. The Parks and Recreation Department wanted to replace the pros with city employees and maximize the revenue, but periodic attempts to change the system were invariably blocked. "Politically, it was a difficult thing to pull off," recalls one department source.
By 1989, the climate had changed enough to begin pursuit of another option -- privatization. With the approval of Mayor Kathy Whitmire, Council agreed to seek bids for management contracts, which would include a healthy percentage of all revenues as well as a minimum annual guarantee for the city. In addition, the operator would promise specific capital improvements and would cover most other operating expenses. In March 1989, a contract to operate the course at Hermann Park was awarded to BSL, a company that manages and develops golf properties and whose principals, Richard Bischoff and Andrew Schatte, were among the guarantors for a $200,000 loan to Whitmire's re-election campaign that year.
BSL, however, apparently was eliminated from consideration for a contract to operate the Memorial Park course after it was revealed in 1991 that the FBI was investigating two BSL golf course deals in which the Municipal Employees' Pension Fund had invested. Instead, the Whitmire administration recommended that the contract be given to the Houstonian Group, which was headed by financier and developer Joe Russo, who was on the steering committee for Whitmire's 1991 re-election campaign and had helped her retire the debt from her 1989 campaign. But the Houstonian Group's financing fell apart after a legal challenge several months later. Russo is now serving a federal prison term for his part in a loan-swapping scheme, and Memorial remains one of the three municipal courses still in city hands.
The reason Sharpstown hung in limbo, says Doug Randall, who is now the head pro at the course and has worked there for a decade, was that it had been promised to BSL. When questions about the pension fund investment surfaced, the deal was allowed to die quietly on the vine. "It was going to be BSL or nothing," says Randall. "There was no doubt, if it hadn't come up, BSL would be here now."
BSL was also the only bidder for the Brock Park course. But the proposal for the perennial money-loser, located on John Ralston Road in a heavily industrialized area, called for the city to pay BSL to manage it and would likely have been rejected, scandal or no.
For at least two of the four that were privatized, the political fix was also in, say a number of sources: Gus Wortham would go to a company owned by African-Americans while Glenbrook Park on the city's southeast side would be reserved for a Hispanic bidder. Indeed, the black-owned Reed Golf Corporation, whose principals are former Wortham pro Paul Reed and businessman Milton Carroll, got the Wortham contract in mid-1991, while Glenbrook went to Lopez Management Group. "Wortham and Glenbrook were a done deal before the proposals ever went out," says the parks department's Gene Hill, who was the pro at Glenbrook until it closed for repairs in 1990, just before its operations were privatized.
Jose Ulabarro, who has a contract with the city to run the food concession at Sharpstown, recalls a conversation with Ben Reyes about the time the courses were put up for grabs. "He said, 'We are gonna get Glenbrook and the blacks are gonna get Gus Wortham,' " Ulabarro recalls.
Reyes, who recently ended his 16-year tenure on Council because of term limits, says he's never spoken with Ulabarro.
Though no one at the parks department would confirm the specifics of the deal on-the-record, documents related to the Lopez bid raise a number of questions about how the Glenbrook contract was awarded. The initial Lopez proposal -- dated January 31, 1991, the deadline for proposals to be received by the city -- promised the moon: the city would get 18.5 percent of all green fees and cart rentals, with minimum payments ranging from $185,000 for the first three years of the eight-year contract to $250,000 for the final two. The guaranteed payments to the city were to total $2.18 million. The proposal was significantly sweeter than any of the other four the city received.
Although it's unclear why, Lopez submitted a revised proposal, also dated January 31, that was still a bit better than the others but greatly reduced the minimum guarantee to the city. The revised bid offered only 11 percent of the green fees and cart rentals, with a total guarantee of $819,000, a reduction of about $1.3 million.
The city was to review the proposals and hold conferences with each of the four bidders in mid-March. Lopez Management Group was scheduled for March 19.
Strangely, the revised Lopez proposal, which has blank spaces where a notarized signature and date are required, includes a copy of a certificate of deposit from First National Bank for $300,000, which was mandated by the city to show that the business had the money to make promised capital improvements at the course. The CD was issued on March 22 -- three months after the proposal was allegedly submitted, and three days after the conference with the parks department.
The city awarded the contract to Lopez, based on the revised numbers.
"Was it in the bag?" a department source who was around during the negotiations asks rhetorically. "You tell me."
Given the current push to privatize Sharpstown and Brock, one would assume that the city has fared well with its previous privatization efforts.
That would be an erroneous assumption. "Of our current contracts, only Hermann seems to be a good deal for the city financially," Finance and Administration director Richard Lewis wrote in a March 22, 1995 memo to Lanier. "For both Glenbrook and Wortham, it appears that city operation would produce a better financial result based on our current contract terms."
Just how bad a deal is the city getting? Parks and Recreation Department figures peg the value of the city's loss at Glenbrook at more than $100,000 annually, though calculations have set the figure for individual years as high as $181,988. This is due in part to debt service on the more than $2 million the city spent to entirely rebuild the course -- just before it was privatized. "They spent $2.4 million and gave the course away," says former Glenbrook pro Gene Hill.
If course operators don't live up to the terms of their contracts, the loss to the city can be even greater. BSL has spent more on capital improvements than the contract for Hermann Park required, but the others have not met their obligations. Of the $662,000 mandated in Reed Golf Corporation's contract for Gus Wortham, the big-ticket item is a $483,300 irrigation system that, at one time, the city figured would be completed within about a year. It has yet to be installed.
The Lopez proposal for Glenbrook included a promise to build a $60,000 driving range, an item that helped tip the scales in the company's direction. "The only such inclusion in a proposal," the city's evaluation noted favorably. The plan was well detailed: the city's summary of proposed capital improvements at Glenbrook mentions that "Lopez's driving range entails moving 18th green and installing screen (yr. 3)."
But soon after the contract was awarded, Lopez balked, claiming the driving range wasn't feasible. The parks department capitulated on the range but insisted the $60,000 be spent elsewhere.
Of the $302,000 in promised capital improvements, Lopez claims that $159,000 already has been spent and has submitted copies of invoices and canceled checks to the parks department to prove it. But Gene Hill is skeptical. It's difficult to tell from many of the invoices and checks, he says, just where the money went. "I don't buy it," says Hill, who as a parks department employee inspected Glenbrook on more than one occasion.
Whatever the amount, the city's loss is definitely the Lopezes' gain. Art Lopez, his brother Ruben and their father Marcos pay themselves almost $100,000 each in annual salary, about 27 percent of Glenbrook's total income, even though sources familiar with the operation say neither Ruben or Marcos spends a significant amount of time there. Contrast that figure with the annual compensation suggested in the original Lopez proposal to the city: $13,667 to each of the three.
Though the business nets only a modest profit, that's partly because expenses are high. In addition to the hefty salaries for the corporate officers, Lopez Management Group claims a pricey vehicle for tax purposes -- a 1993 Lexus.
The city, meanwhile, subsidizes the operators of Glenbrook and its other privatized courses with free water for irrigation. In Glenbrook's case, according to Gene Hill, the value of this gift in 1994 was $144,521.96, more than the city received in fees.
"I'm sure the Galleria would like to have free water," Hill says dryly.
And every time Council raises golf course fees, a periodic occurrence, it means money in the bank for the operator. That can add up: a meager average increase of $2 per round, multiplied, say, by the 60,000 rounds played at Glenbrook last year, would tuck about an extra $100,000 in the pockets of the Lopez Management Group after the city is given its share. A slightly larger increase for all courses except Memorial is currently pending and may be passed within the month.
Moreover, Art Lopez recently wrote to the parks department, asking that the revenue percentages to the city stipulated in the Glenbrook contract be cut in half. No decision on that request has been reached.
It's hard to blame the Lopezes for making the best of a good situation. After all, the Parks and Recreation Department has the power to enforce the contracts. But Bill Smith seems distinctly disinterested in doing so. The Glenbrook contract, for example, stipulates that the city "reserves the right" to pass part or all of the water expenses on to Lopez Management Group after the first year of the contract.
Responding to a complaint from golfing gadfly Jim Goodson that Glenbrook and other courses did not employ certified PGA professionals as their golf pros, which the contracts require, Smith promised in writing that he'd make sure the courses would be in compliance. That was a year ago. Glenbrook still does not employ a qualified pro.
In September 1994, the parks department staff prepared an "overview of privatization" to summarize key issues at the behest of Council's competitive services committee. Though based mostly on conversations with golf administrators in other cities, the document reads like a blueprint of the city's experience: "Privatization leads to certain predictable outcomes on municipal golf courses," including a lack of managerial control and accountability, the need for intense scrutiny of maintenance practices and the subsidizing of contractors in the form of free utilities and other amenities.
Warned the staff overview: "Complete privatization can result in a public perception that the courses are no longer operated for the benefit of the citizenry, but rather in the interest of profit over service, programming and promotion of the game."
Privatization will save the city money and result in better management. Or so goes the argument. That neither has happened as a result of the city's privatization of four of its golf courses hasn't slowed enthusiasm for the principle, at least in some quarters -- most particularly the Council chambers.
When Ben Reyes submitted his budget amendment to privatize the Sharpstown and Brock courses back in June 1994, he claimed that privatization had been a boon to the city and that converting the two courses would "result in significant savings of funds and a large increase in revenues." Reyes, however, offered no hard evidence or savings projections to back his contention.
"It was an assumption on my part," Reyes says today. "Did I have numbers? I probably did. Do I remember about 'em? No, I don't."
Both Reyes and Councilwoman Martha Wong offered motions referring the proposal to the newly created competitive services committee, which was to study the comparative benefits of city and private operation. In response, parks department director Smith challenged the wisdom of privatizing Sharpstown and Brock, but, with the approval of Lanier, the ball was rolling.
In September 1994, Lanier wrote Smith requesting an update on Sharpstown and Brock. Smith responded by putting together a timeline for privatization all the way to the signing of the contract the following spring. Shortly thereafter, the parks department issued a "request for proposals" from interested bidders.
The deadline for proposals was January 12, and the five bids, including the one from Lopez Management Group, were unsealed. A week later, the competitive services committee took up the issue.
At that meeting, a number of councilmembers raised concerns about privatization. At-large member Gracie Saenz said she had been apprised of problems at the privatized courses, including poor maintenance, capital improvement delays and rude treatment of the public. Ray Driscoll, whose district includes the Sharpstown course, wanted to know why the city was not competitively bidding on the courses.
According to the minutes, Finance and Administration director Richard Lewis told the committee they'd get something in writing to address their concerns and "to reiterate director Bill Smith's discretionary judgment to privatize rather than competitively bid."
In other words, Smith had reversed himself somewhere between July and October, at first opposing Reyes' privatization proposal, then skirting the budget ordinance by unilaterally deciding to avoid competitive bidding.
We wanted to ask Smith about his mysterious change of heart and other relevant questions, but the parks director responded through a spokeswoman that he will not discuss the privatization until after a contract for the courses is awarded.
Perhaps Smith's answers would have been the same as those he gave the Council's competitive services committee early last year in a 16-page Q&A entitled "Response to Golf Course Privatization Questions." But those were really no responses at all.
Referring to a financial analysis his department had done, Smith asked: "If the city provided a pro forma indicating it could make $350,000 self-operating Sharpstown, why is privatization being pursued?"
The answer, embedded in circular ramblings: the actual figure was more like $365,000. Next question, please.
The Q&A also purported to address Driscoll's query: "What is the department's assessment of not competitively bidding Sharpstown and Brock golf courses?"
The answer spelled out the difference between formal bids and requests for proposals (RFPs) and argued that the RFPs the department opted for would give the city more flexibility. It noted that the city "is not obligated to enter into a contract with any of the proposers should it be deemed that none could produce the level of service, maintenance, dollar return and customer satisfaction provided by continued city management." Elaborating, Smith said that a preliminary evaluation already had been completed and that further reviews would continue for several months.
That sounds reasonable, except those evaluations all showed the same thing -- that the city itself could do a better job.
For instance, in the February 2 preliminary evaluation, Smith concluded that the Lopez proposal was riddled with problems: it fell "far short" of acceptable standards on supply, repair and maintenance expenses; it inflated receipts for alcohol sales and driving range revenue; it offered an "exceedingly high" and "unacceptable" golf cart rental fee; and it failed, along with all the others, to address the question of bridge replacement at Brock, a needed -- and very expensive -- improvement.
Later, the parks department conducted a "customer satisfaction survey" of golfers at Sharpstown and Brock. Department staffer Fred Buehler summarized the results this way: "What stands out from the numbers is: the high level of regard the players hold for the course they regularly play; the almost as high level of regard they hold for the other city-managed course; the low regard they hold for the staff and conditions at privatized courses."
At the bottom of the customer-satisfaction list: Glenbrook and Gus Wortham.
City statistics parallel those findings. The number of rounds played at Sharpstown and Brock have increased substantially the past two years, up 14 and 28 percent, respectively. At Glenbrook and Gus Wortham, the number of rounds has actually decreased by more than 7 percent at Glenbrook and almost 12 percent at Wortham.
About the same time as the survey, the parks department paid Economic Research Associates $5,000 to evaluate the proposals independently. ERA determined that although the Lopez proposal was the best of those submitted, continued city management was far superior.
And in notes prepared to accompany the ERA study, the parks staff added the following observations: "Lopez is undercapitalized" and might have trouble meeting its obligations; "the ability of Lopez to provide quality maintenance and upkeep of the course is brought into question"; and ERA's failure to take into account such factors as "the city's experience in monitoring Lopez's current contract, especially in regard to spending the required capital improvement amount, meeting maintenance requirements and hiring stipulated professional staff."
Those concerns led Roy Witham, the parks department's deputy director of administration, to conclude in a July 5 memo to Smith, "Given the analysis by ERA, and the financial limitations of the proposers, I concur with staff that privatization is not in our best interest at this time and therefore recommend that all proposals be rejected. I make this statement from both a business and a customer service point of view."
Apparently, neither the ERA evaluation nor his own staff's concerns gave Smith pause, and he never shared them with anyone on the Council.
"I haven't seen [the information]," says Driscoll. "I did want to see."
And he was supposed to see. The week after Witham's memo, Smith was to deliver a report to the competitive services committee with all the information. But the day before the meeting, Smith's secretary, Vicki Trahan, called Martha Wong, the committee's chair, and asked her to remove the parks director from the agenda. According to the minutes of the meeting, "Wong stated that the committee was going to hold off on the report from the Parks and Recreation Department because they were not through with the comparison of city operations versus private concessionaires."
Curious, because Witham's memo to Smith points out that the various studies and data "should assist you in preparation for your report."
And that was the last the competitive services panel ever heard of the issue.
Not that it ever went away. At the urging of Driscoll, the item to privatize Sharpstown and Brock was shifted to the Council's parks committee, where it surfaced in December. Driscoll says he did so when he realized that the issue should never have been before the competitive services committee in the first place. "I did not realize that this thing had already been put out for bid, that the [best] bid won and the [best] bidder [Lopez] had been told he had won," Driscoll explains.
How did Driscoll learn that? Bill Smith told him, he says, though this significant bit of information appears nowhere in the record. In other words, the competitive services committee was busily doing its job for nothing, since Smith had already given the courses away to Lopez.
And having promised Lopez the deal, says Driscoll, it would be bad form for the city to revisit the issue competitively. Besides, the issue had been hanging for a long time with no resolution, a fact Lopez pointed out in a meeting with Driscoll that helped convince the councilman to move forward with it.
Gracie Saenz also feels for Lopez. The parks department waffled for months before finally bowing out, and at that point, the choice was clear. "It was in the competitive services [committee]," Saenz says, "and there was a situation in terms of allowing [the parks department] to give us some figures if they were going to do it, and if not, then we moved forward with privatization. To me, it wasn't fair that we had sat on it for so long without making a decision one way or another."
Small wonder, then, that on December 11, the parks committee accepted Driscoll's motion, with Saenz seconding, to proceed with a formal contract with Lopez for Sharpstown and Brock. Smith told the committee he'd try to have a contract ready shortly, and a draft was submitted to the Legal Department a few days later.
The city apparently has realized the deal looks more than a little suspicious. Asked about the contract, Susan Christian, the chief spokeswoman for the parks department, pretended it didn't exist. "We have made no formal request or recommendation" about privatization, Christian said shortly after the department shipped off the draft contract to the city attorney.
The city's Legal Department has also publicly professed ignorance of the contract. It doesn't exist, several lawyers in the department told the Press, until an unsuspecting department paralegal rebutted them. "The assignment came in two days ago," he told the Press in mid-December.
And as recently as the first week of January, while the Lopez Management Group's lawyer was negotiating the fine points of the paperwork, assistant city attorney Lan Nguyen insisted the parks department hadn't moved on the deal. "No, they did not," Nguyen said. "I spoke to parks, and they have not recommended anyone."
The Legal Department also denied an Open Records Request by the Press to view documents on the Lopez bid for Sharpstown and Brock, claiming that making them public would give an unfair advantage to Lopez's competitors.
That explanation was especially ironic, since the only one with an advantage at this point is the Lopez Group. Not only has it been promised the contract, but on December 12, it submitted a revised proposal for Sharpstown and Brock -- the only bidder allowed to do so.
Some things don't change. In his revised proposal, Art Lopez reduced the minimum guarantee to the city and changed a few other numbers to his advantage. Asking Lopez for clarification, the parks department's Roy Witham wrote: "The above information needs to be supplied in order to expedite the processing of the contract documents."
Is the city bending over backward again to help Lopez cinch the deal? Consider this: after the parks department staff included a demand for a $1 million performance bond in its contract draft to ensure Lopez lives up to his end of the bargain, he complained that such a requirement was unfair, since it hadn't been mentioned in the city's original request for proposals.
As Smith told the Council's parks committee, the dispute was worked out: the city would simply subtract the cost of Lopez's bond out of its share of the golf course revenues, a tidy subsidy worth about $75,000.
Perfectly reasonable, says Ray Driscoll. "The original RFP was probably flawed in that area," the councilman says. "[The subsidy] is kind of a punishment to the city for screwing up on their RFP."
Bill Smith may simply be pushing an unsound policy on his own. Perhaps he just wants out of the golf business for personal, rather than fiscal, reasons. But it's more likely that the peculiar twists of the golf-privatization process reflect an older truth: money and politics are inseparable companions.
The evidence is purely circumstantial, but there's plenty of it. Start with Ben Reyes, who made the first official moves to privatize Sharpstown and Brock, then lobbied other councilmembers and mustered support from various quarters. "He wanted just to outright privatize," says Martha Wong. "I would say that Mr. Reyes had great interest in looking at the privatization of Brock and Sharpstown."
Reyes counters that while he brought privatization of Sharpstown and Brock to the Council table, he never pursued it. "After that, I left it alone. The [competitive services] committee set the wheel. I didn't have anything to do with any of that."
Furthermore, Reyes says, the golf courses were only one among many city services he advanced for privatization. And his interest had nothing to do with Art Lopez. "He was the [beneficiary] of it," Reyes says, "But I didn't do it on his behalf."
Lanier, however, remembers differently. In mid-1995, he says, Reyes took him to Glenbrook "and drove me around in a golf cart to show me the condition of the course and how well Lopez maintained it. He gave his opinion that Lopez was an excellent operator and that his judgment was that Lopez could operate golf courses at a higher level than could the city."
Sources at Glenbrook say Reyes and his family are no strangers to the links there, and that they often play for free. One regular recounts that he was once about to tee off at the course when members of the Reyes clan cut in front. After he complained, he says, he was told to mind his own business, that the Reyes family was "comped."
Reyes told the Press he's only played a few rounds at Glenbrook since July, and, when asked about the alleged freebies for himself and his family at the course, the ex-councilman said, "That's not even worthy of a response."
Reyes did acknowledge that Art Lopez is "a good friend." The friendship extended into the political realm: Lopez and his father-in-law, hospital executive John Styles, donated several thousand dollars to Reyes' campaigns for Congress and Council.
Lopez, meanwhile, has retained a pair of politically wired consultants to help smooth the path to the privatization of Sharpstown and Brock. One is Larry Berkman, who has raised significant amounts of campaign funds for a number of candidates over the years. Berkman's daughter Cindy works for Councilwoman Gracie Saenz.
Saenz says neither Berkman nor his daughter has approached her about Sharpstown or Brock. And she says that Lopez, who contributed $2,450 to her 1993 Council campaign, has simply asked for her support.
Saenz has spoken with another Lopez hireling, consultant Betti Maldonado, a Port of Houston commissioner who is a close friend of Lanier and his wife and the mayor's former NAFTA liaison. Maldonado says she's just helping Lopez with issues related to the Hispanic community, including a project to develop "an educational golf outreach program" for Hispanic youth.
But Maldonado has performed another service for Lopez that she didn't mention. After Andy Rivera of the Pan American Golf Association, a national trade and social group with a branch in Houston, mentioned in passing at a recent Council meeting that he objected to privatization, he received a call from Maldonado. "She wanted to know, why am I knocking the Hispanic community?" Rivera says. "I take issue with that. I myself am Hispanic."
Rivera says he got other calls asking him to keep quiet, though most were friendly. "I got nice invitations to play golf, and go to breakfast, and go to lunch, and go to dinner," he says.
He also got a call and a visit from Art Lopez himself. Lopez asked him to muzzle his opposition as well, only he added that it really didn't make any difference what Rivera did. "He told me, 'It's a done deal. It's only a matter of time,' " Rivera says.
Lurking in the background of all these machinations is the familiar figure of Lanier, who has taken an unusual interest in the privatization of Sharpstown and Brock. The mayor has followed developments closely, requesting periodic updates from Bill Smith. On September 14, 1994, Lanier asked for some data, noting that "Rueben [sic] Lopez wants to bid on Memorial driving range and wants some numbers."
Lanier also asked for and received almost monthly status reports, some on behalf of others. On August 14, 1995, Lanier wrote Smith, "Where are we with respect to the two golf courses that Lopez is interested in bidding on? Senator [Mario] Gallegos wants to talk to me about these."
Having seen all the reports, the mayor may be the only one privy to the negative conclusions of the parks department regarding the Lopez bid. And what does he think?
"At this point, no decision has been reached whether to recommend to Council that Sharpstown and Brock be privatized," the mayor said in a faxed response to questions from the Press.
Lanier's noncommittal response contrasts with his more forthright statement in a February 17, 1995 letter to Jim Goodson concerning the privatization of Sharpstown and Brock. He wrote: "The effort there would be to reduce costs and/or improve services. If privatization doesn't do that, then there is no reason to move forward."
It's not as if better options aren't available; the parks department has researched them. Among them is the Baltimore example, in which that city formed a nonprofit corporation free from political influence to manage the municipal golf courses. The result, according to a March 1993 Golf Digest article, is that "Baltimore's four munies now are cash cows -- and a model for municipalities everywhere."
Another option would be for the city to privatize portions of the golf operations and leave management in city hands, which has been successfully tried in a number of other Texas cities. Citing that possibility, finance director Richard Lewis wrote Lanier last March, "I would offer that alternatives appear viable for the city's overall plan for golf operations E. Perhaps, before a decision on further privatization is made, discussions should take place regarding the various options."
If such discussions did take place, they were inaudible. And before the city proceeds with further privatization, those are discussions that should be heard. According to the latest parks department figures, generated only last month, taxpayers will be out almost $2.4 million if the city consummates the Lopez deal. That represents the difference between what the Lopez Management Group would give back to the city and what the city would make on its own. Lopez Management Group, on the other hand, stands to net more than $4 million -- not including any salaries the Lopezes might pay themselves.
In addition to the taxpayers, the average Houston golfer stands to lose. And municipal golf attracts big numbers -- 65 percent of the golfing public in the South does not belong to a private club. If history repeats itself, costs will rise, conditions deteriorate and the staff will become less responsive.
Those golfers aren't too keen on the idea of forking over the city's remaining courses. Last year, Sharpstown's Jose Ulabarro obtained petitions with 2,500 signatures opposing the plan.
Lee Gordon is both a taxpayer and a golfer. A former chief announcer for Channel 2, Gordon has been battling the privatization of public courses for more than five years. Gordon went before Council so often to argue against privatization that eyes would roll every time he'd get up to speak. Most recently, he's agitated against raising of green fees at Memorial (see "The Executive Course," page 13).
That his dire predictions have come true frustrates Gordon, but at 76 and still packing an acid tongue, he's not about to stop wagging it.
"I'm against this privatization," he says flatly. "It hasn't saved the city a damn penny. We have to pay for somebody else to make money, and that's all they're doing. It's one of the biggest thief jobs done in this city.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.