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In the Rough

As the city's effort to give away its municipal golf courses to a private operator blows up, the Lanier administration and City Council are ducking for cover, leaving three employees of the Parks and Recreation Department caught in the fallout.

Over the last 12 months, the parks department has accumulated a mountain of evidence that privatizing Sharpstown and Brock parks, two of the three remaining municipal courses still managed by the city, would be a bad deal for taxpayers. As first reported by the Press, that evidence had been suppressed by parks director Bill Smith, with the tacit approval of councilmembers who at various times had asked to see the numbers but never peeped when they weren't delivered.

Despite those and other unflattering revelations about Lopez Management Group, the family operators who stand to make a few million if Brock and Sharpstown change hands, the deal is still alive, if just barely. Although Mayor Bob Lanier has now rejected the proposal to privatize the courses, he left the door open for Council to revive it down the line.

Lanier, perhaps nervous that a recommendation to privatize might tarnish his image as the taxpayers' best friend, previously had asked Smith's department to determine once and for all if privatization was in the city's best interest, even though it had been done numerous times already, always with the same clear conclusion: the city stood to lose at least $2 million on the deal.

Lanier claimed that opinion within the department was divided, though no documents support that view, nor could numerous Press interviews flush out any Lopez supporters. Even Lopez lawyer Bill Small agrees that parks staffers who believe privatization is a good move are in short supply. "I can't find any," Small says. "Can you?"

Sources in the department say the staff worked and reworked the numbers at Lanier's request, spending evenings and weekends on the job. Each time, the results were essentially the same.

Apparently, that wasn't good enough. Lanier rejected several reports from the department, and on January 26, Smith demoted deputy director of administration Roy Witham and shipped finance officer Lalitha Raman to the public works department. A third employee, Fred Buehler, will also see a change in his duties. All three carried responsibility for managing the golf courses and were involved in the number crunching.

Gene Hill, who works in the parks department's golf and tennis office, believes the moves were punitive, a view shared by others in the department. Not only was Smith upset that the numbers weren't working out in Lopez's favor, Hill says, but the director retaliated for alleged leaks of the department's previous reports and the resultant bad publicity.

"It's sickening," says Hill, who is about to retire. "I knew that if the truth comes out, it's gonna make them look bad, and they're not gonna stand for it."

Witham was replaced by Sarah Culbreth, who had been on loan to the parks department from public works since December to help with budgeting. Ironically, Witham now holds a brand-new position: "acting director of golf."

"They kicked Roy in the ass," says Hill.
Department spokeswoman Susan Christian denies that Smith jiggled numbers in Lopez's favor. She claims that Witham was not demoted, noting that he makes the same salary and keeps the title deputy director, though his responsibilities have been reduced. And Christian says any connection between the personnel shifts and the golf debacle is purely coincidental.

Lanier promised to make a recommendation to Council based on the latest figures, which were put in the hands of Culbreth and John Baldwin, deputy director of financial management in the public works department, who has been helping with the golf analysis. Lanier even brought his favorite accounting consultants,Peat Marwick, in for a look.

But nothing changed. Though Lanier said the Lopez proposal met his other criteria, the numbers never added up to a clear financial benefit for the city.

All the delays didn't sit well with some councilmembers, 11 of whom recently signed a letter to the mayor asking that a contract for Lopez be put up for a vote as soon as possible. While they awaited Lanier's judgment, they also complained that the mayor had not been sharing information with them. At the January 24 Council meeting, Ray Driscoll groused that he'd not been given the information to which the mayor was privy, which prompted an angry retort from Lanier. "If you want, I'll make a recommendation right now to reject [the contract]," he told Driscoll. "Is that what you want?

Hardly. Driscoll, whose district includes the Sharpstown course, has become Council's chief water-carrier for Lopez, shepherding the contract through the process and rounding up signatures from his colleagues to place it on the Council agenda. Before the meeting, he shared a few chuckles with Lopez lawyer Bill Small, who's using Driscoll as the conduit for the pro-Lopez spin on the issue.

At the same time, Driscoll and others have fled from the very documents they claim to have been seeking. The previous day, during Council's open forum, golfer Bob Gregory presented 12 copies of a packet of documents he said he received from a "concerned citizen." Included were a number of the reports from the parks department that detailed why the Lopez deal was a loser.

But the next day, several councilmembers claimed not to have seen or read the materials. Driscoll, however, had. "Some of the information was taken out of context," he said. "In my estimation, it has no value in making a decision one way or the other."

"That's an out-and-out lie," Gregory responds. "There was nothing taken out of context. I don't think they want to know [the facts]."

In rejecting the bid, Lanier offered the Lopez group a chance to bring its case to Council's competitive services committee. Asked if he would pursue that avenue, Lopez lawyer Small replied, "Absolutely."

Committee chair Martha Wong has asked that Bill Smith finally provide all the information the parks department has collected on the matter. But even if councilmembers get to see all the documents, they might not find them conclusive. Small has been furiously spinning the numbers to show an economic benefit to the city under Lopez management. He says his own numbers show that the Lopez bid beats the city hands down. If the city has new figures, he says, "Either they're not as good as ours, or those numbers do not correctly reflect what the city can operate the golf courses for."

Small has another argument to counter the parks department's negative assessments: his client is the victim of a conspiracy. The department, says Small, is trying to protect its turf at the expense of Lopez, and any negative appraisals of privatization can be rejected accordingly.

That includes the survey the city conducted last year of golfers at Sharpstown and Brock, which showed strong support for maintaining the status quo. "The survey wasn't taken for the purpose of finding out what the course conditions were," Small contends. "It was taken for the purpose of extolling the virtue of the parks department's management of the golf course."

In addition, as Small complained bitterly before Council several weeks ago, Bill Smith hadn't followed through or even returned phone calls to Lopez since promising a contract for the courses.

Such treatment undoubtedly upset Lopez. Prior to the Press' probing of the privatization effort at the beginning of December, the parks director had manipulated the system in Lopez's favor for more than a year. He'd offered Lopez a contract when the Council's competitive services committee was supposed to be considering continued city management of the courses as an option; he'd withheld the many studies and the reviews prepared by his staff.

Smith also had worked closely with Lopez to refine his proposal, almost a year old by then, even though no other bidder was given that opportunity. Sometimes they met at Smith's office, but occasionally they did business over some high-priced feeds, dining together at least four times at Maxim's and Grotto in October and November.

From the competitive services committee's perspective, the conspiracy theory may be moot -- especially with the reassigned parks department workers out of the way. So it's possible that after a suitable interval, the Lopez effort may re-emerge. And next time, the city's assessments may incline more favorably toward privatization.

Which would clear Lanier to give his go-ahead. But despite the mayor's assurances, there's another way any Lopez deal may fall short of his requirements: that it be good for the community. Neighbors of the Glenbrook Park course, which the Lopez group has managed since 1991, have complained numerous times of rude treatment, even threats, when they've been walking the grounds. At a recent meeting to address the problems, Lopez and his lawyer attributed tensions to a communications problem, but the neighbors remain unconvinced.

Evelyn White, who lives in the Meadowbrook neighborhood on Glenbrook's south side and is vice president of the civic club, says the problems with Lopez have left her unhappy. "If someone else takes over that course who does not consider it their private domain," White says, "that will not bother me."

Becky Sallans, whose Park Place neighborhood borders Glenbrook to the north, echoes that sentiment.

"Before Lopez took over management of Glenbrook, the neighborhood was on good terms with the golf course," says Sallans. "As soon as Lopez came in, it changed.

"If I had a chance to vote on whether or not they'd be allowed to continue their contract with Glenbrook, " adds Sallans, "I'd be opposed to that.


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