Friends Like These

Francisco Paredes believes the Friends of Hermann Park are trying to get rid of him and his fellow vendors.
Daniel Kramer

The Island Snow stand outside the Houston Zoo is lined with bottles of snow cone syrup, each filled with a different color and flavor, from the deep pink of bubble gum to margarita's acid green. Van DeQuevedo, a youthful 60 in his Texas Longhorns cap, offers 26 flavors in three sizes, along with bottles of Aquafina and cans of Coke.

But he doesn't offer them for free if he fails to give buyers a receipt, and that's turned into a major point of contention with his managers, the Friends of Hermann Park. The Friends announced the policy in February and ordered vendors to post signs explaining it. They even provided the signs, in both English and Spanish, each neatly laminated.

DeQuevedo's signs are gathering dust in the back of his Ford Explorer. "Things like this are just part of their arrogance," he says. "Even a first-year law student could see this isn't part of our contract."

On a recent Wednesday, as throngs of schoolkids made their way into the zoo, none of the vendors had the signs posted. Explains Juana Cheesman, as she strings colorful balloons from her stand, "I just refused. I cannot do it."

The signs are the most recent skirmish in the two-year battle between the Friends of Hermann Park and the union that represents all but two of its ten park vendors. While Friends executive director Doreen Stoller denies there's a problem, the vendors have grown increasingly angry. "They treat us very bad, worse than trash," says Juana Bohannon, who's sold toys in the park for seven years.

"There is no relationship here, and no partnership," says DeQuevedo. "All the rapport has broken down."

DeQuevedo and his wife, Tina, started selling snow cones 16 years ago. Before that, he was in construction and she worked in oil and gas, but both industries were hit hard when the city's economy crashed in the '80s. The couple started with one snow cone trailer on Chimney Rock; eventually they had eight locations.

Today, with their daughter out of college, they've cut back to just one stand, the one they've tended at Hermann Park since 1996. In 2003, they took in close to $80,000, before expenses and the city's cut. "We can make it out here," DeQuevedo says. But, he adds, of all the places he's ever peddled refreshments, "this is the worst."

It wasn't always that way. Vendors got permits from the city's Parks and Recreation Department, and the city gave the program little attention. For 14 years, vendors say, the city charged just $625 a year for permits. DeQuevedo says he had no problem with the city's management.

But the Friends of Hermann Park saw bigger potential. The nonprofit group was in the midst of a major capital campaign to improve the park. Previously focused solely on fund-raising, it added a conservation director and volunteer coordinator. "We expanded our mission to include stewardship of the park," says director Stoller. "And, like all nonprofits, we had to start looking at ways to supplement our fund-raising with other revenue."

The group pitched City Council on a plan to manage the vending operations. Vendors would pay the Friends 15 percent of their sales, and the organization would turn two-thirds of those collections over to the city and keep one-third for itself.

They estimated the city would get an additional $70,000 a year -- an increase of nearly $60,000 from its previous take. In May 2002, the city handed over operations, and the vendors inked contracts with the Friends.

But the Friends almost immediately got off on the wrong foot with their contractors. After just one month, Friends concession manager Michael Basil penned a letter to the vendors. "[W]e have reason to believe that a portion of daily sales may not been [sic] reported by some vendors," Basil wrote. "Any breach" in contract requirements, he added, could result in the Friends' terminating the guilty vendor with just three days' notice.

Many vendors took it as a direct attack. In a letter to the Friends, the vendors listed areas where the Friends had failed to live up to their end of the contract: They hadn't provided electricity or water. Nor had they figured out a way to let vendors into the park to set up before the gates opened. Nor had the Friends followed through on proposals to add vending outlets for such items as tacos and nachos. (The issues, the vendors say, still haven't been addressed.)

Last summer, at the suggestion of Councilwoman Ada Edwards, eight of the ten vendors signed on with the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU. The tension worsened. The Friends suspended monthly meetings with the vendors last November. The group is eager to meet -- they say their contracts aren't being enforced, that the nonunion vendors aren't following the rules, and that they're tired of getting directives without any chance for discussion. But they can't get face time.

Stoller, the Friends' director, plays down the problems. She says she wasn't aware that the vendors wanted to meet. She claims not to know they are unhappy.

But she admits that revenues haven't matched expectations. For the 2003 fiscal year, according to the city controller, the Friends gave the city just $33,068 -- less than half of what it had predicted.

The Friends have good reason to suspect something fishy, Stoller says. They've crunched numbers and compared receipts from each vendor. Even factoring in weather and location, she says, there was a $300 difference per day between what the highest and lowest vendor report. Someone, she suggests, is lying. "I think, given the economic climate in the city, we're all called to do more with less," she says. "Everyone is held to high standards of accountability -- more so now than ever."

Vendors insist that receipts are a bad way to do that. Their business tends to run in spurts, says Francisco Paredes, who's sold toys for ten years. "We have no time to give a receipt," he says. "And a lot of people would like the chance for the free toy."

Adds Orell Fitzsimmons, field director for the SEIU, "If this was required in the contract, we'd have no problem with it. But now they just want to make these changes without bargaining. They're not kings, and we're not peasants. Why shove this down our throats?" The contract calls for cash registers, which the vendors say they're willing to use, but Stoller says a trial period proved that they were impractical.

The Friends' efforts to collect more money have been more talk than action -- no vendors have been disciplined over issues in the dispute.

But the vendors say the real problem is in the Friends' patronizing attitude toward them. The Friends also recently hired monitors, which the vendors call "007s," to count customers on busy weekends. "They treat us like a stepchild," DeQuevedo says.

The Friends board contains some of the area's highest high rollers, from Sharon Lay to Lyle Lovett. Many of the vendors, meanwhile, are Hispanic. At least half qualify for the city's minority/women classification. Stoller, Paredes insists, "doesn't like the Spanish."

Some vendors see a conspiracy: They believe the Friends are trying to dump them to make way for a monolithic entity like Aramark, then jack up prices. DeQuevedo, whose contract expired last October, began paying an extra 1 percent at the time, in an effort to start negotiations. He wants to get a new contract, but the Friends have refused to talk.

He's worried; so is Bohannon. She's hired a lawyer, who's fighting the receipt issue. The union, meanwhile, arranged a meeting with Councilwoman Pam Holm, who heads the committee that oversees the parks. The SEIU's Fitzsimmons made two suggestions: Put the vendors back under city control or renegotiate the contracts.

Holm's chief of staff, Whitney Bowles, says the councilwoman acknowledges "a lot of frustration out there" but insists the Friends are not trying to get rid of the vendors.

"The contracts do need to be renegotiated," Bowles says. "Everybody is in agreement on that." She says the mayor's office will be taking the lead on hammering out the details.

Frank Michel, the mayor's spokesman, deferred comment to the parks department. Through a spokeswoman, Parks Director Roksan Okan-Vick said she is monitoring the situation and hopes to find a "happy resolution."

But the vendors have little hope that Okan-Vick will be on their side; before taking her city job, she had Stoller's job running Friends. She was the one in charge, they note, when the first letters were sent accusing them of withholding revenues.

So the union is taking a hard line. Fitzsimmons wrote Stoller, requesting the unions concerns "be addressed" by April 28. The timing, he says, is no coincidence: The Friends' biggest fund-raiser of the year is at Hermann Park on April 29.

Should the Friends refuse to talk, the union has no intention of selling their wares that day, then disappearing into the night. They believe the evening offers an unprecedented opportunity. When the Friends and their supporters arrive at the park, "they're not going to be happy to see a sign saying, 'The Friends of Hermann Park are douche bags,' are they?" Fitzsimmons asks. That answer isn't a hard one; finding a solution is another story.

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