Mayor Lee Brown has been in the city cockpit nearly two years, but his flying skills don't seem to be improving. Anyone seeking proof need look no further than the administration's breathtakingly bungled confrontation with Continental Airlines last month over the selection of a team to build more than $400 million worth of improvements at Bush Intercontinental Airport.
If Continental ran its business in similar fashion, we'd be picking through airliner wreckage on our way to work.
Brown's dogfight with one of the city's largest employers didn't last too long. He quickly discovered he didn't have the votes to push the airport expansion deal through City Council. A week after the dispute became public, Brown insisted on a face-saving meeting with Continental CEO Gordon Bethune and then ran up the white flag. The expansion project would be re-evaluated, declared the mayor, with the airline getting a seat on the committee selecting the firms to do the work.
When the smoke cleared, investigators blamed pilot error for the crash of the mayor's political machine.
"They went all out on this, and they couldn't find their rears with two hands," says a Brown ally. "It was a remarkably inept performance, to my mind."
Another friend of Lee Brown laments that the mayor's political learning curve has been down more often than up.
"It's the Achilles heel of the Brown administration," says this source. "He has personally no political instincts, and there's nobody around him that he trusts or has close enough to him to make those kinds of decisions."
During the fracas, Brown damaged his credibility by repeatedly making statements to reporters that seemed false. After the controversy went public, the mayor held a news conference and declared he was unaware of the details of the airport project and denied that architects or other contractors had been chosen. In fact, the lineup for the project teams had been set since last January, when Continental officials dug in their heels, and Brown rebuffed efforts by airline officials to compromise on the dispute.
A number of municipal players had privately expressed to the mayor their misgivings about the handling of the matter in the preceding months. They could only chuckle at his later claims of noninvolvement and watch to see if the mayor's nose was growing with each questionable statement.
A Brown administration topsider confirms that in a series of meetings involving the mayor, public works director Jerry King argued that the administration could win the fight by mobilizing the contractors to pressure City Council. In fact, the strategy backfired. When King went looking for votes, he discovered the tactic only angered elected officials and solidified Council opposition. He returned to the mayor empty-handed.
The dispute between Brown and the airline began in earnest early this year. Steven Smith, a former Continental construction project supervisor who now is the city's deputy aviation director, began putting together the teams that would design, manage and build the airport expansion. The project had four major components, including roadways and utilities, the expansion of the Leland terminal to accommodate domestic and foreign flights, and the construction of a federal inspection services building and a parking garage.
Continental contended that several of the firms chosen as team leaders, known as "primes," were inexperienced for their assigned jobs. One was Morris Architects, a Houston firm with minimal airport design experience. It had received a small contract for $2.7 million in 1992 to survey improvements to the airport terminals. The contract was eventually expanded to $17 million. Somehow, without any additional requests for qualifications, the mayor's men assembled a smorgasbord of contractors under Morris's leadership. That team was heavily spiced with minority companies, including the ESPA engineering firm, owned by one of Brown's closest political allies, Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee.
Mayor Brown had already told his department heads that he wanted qualified minority firms whenever possible to be considered for prime rather than subcontractor roles. After limiting the candidates for lead architect to only small firms, Smith says, the firm of African-American John S. Chase was judged the most qualified for the customs building assignment.
City aviation director Rick Vacar says the goal was to take firms that had only traditional subcontractor roles and give them prime assignments to build their experience and credentials.
"Chase is not perfectly qualified to do the whole thing," concedes Vacar, "but in a team arrangement, they are perfectly qualified. They hadn't had the experience as a stand-alone before."
To provide that experience, the Houston firm PGAL was brought in as a backup. PGAL is building customs facilities at several other U.S. airports. According to one of those in on the deal, Chase planned to use PGAL rather than hire additional staff. Vacar says that with the help Chase shouldn't have any problems with the federal inspection station project.
"Basically, when you look at an [inspection station], it is basically a rectangular box. Now, an architectural firm can build a box."
That isn't quite how an executive for a firm that has built such facilities sees it. "An international terminal and a federal inspection station is a very sensitive, complex project," says this source. He notes such plans have to be run past the airlines involved, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "It's just something you don't want first-time architects doing."
Vacar's explanation -- that it doesn't really matter who is the prime and who is a subcontractor -- draws derision from a City Hall veteran deal-maker.
"Anybody that tells you the general on the team isn't making more money than the lieutenants also believes in the tooth fairy." Another person close to the deal says that when firms have to be plugged in to cover for the lack of qualifications of others, it inflates the costs for project design and management. According to this source, design and management projections for the airport expansion are more than 20 percent, compared to industry standards of 13 percent to 15 percent.
Mayor Brown insisted that his administration's handling of the airport expansion was no different than how his predecessor, Bob Lanier, selected contractors. Lanier says Brown is way off base in using that rationale.
"The idea -- that moving a professional from a $17 million job to building a $400 million airport is consistent with past practices -- is simply not correct," counters Lanier. "It would be very difficult to defend. So I think the mayor did well to settle the matter with Continental and go out for a new [request for qualifications] and select the most-qualified people."
A former Lanier administration official has a similar reaction to Brown's arguments. "That's just nonsense, not true. Everybody would know who's been down there that on a major job you come in with qualifications for people who do that kind of work. You don't just qualify somebody who can fix lawn mowers to build an airplane."
Lanier fought hard to preserve the city's affirmative action program in his last year in office. He's concerned that Brown's handling of the airport contract could provide opponents with ammunition in a future referendum.
"I love John Chase, and I've known him 30 to 40 years. He's a very competent guy, but he has not built an airport," says Lanier. "The Continental people wanted somebody who had built an airport. To move him up that leap of experience -- and to do it with a seven-year-old RFQ -- I just think if carried out [it] would have endangered the affirmative action program. Not just public-relationswise, but legalwise."
City Councilman Joe Roach says he hates to see architect Chase becoming "a lightning rod" in the debate over affirmative action.
"The city needs to be resolute in picking firms that have strong qualifications for the job," says the councilman. He chairs the Council Aviation Committee, which would have to sign off on the project contract. "John Chase is a good man, a good architect and has strong qualifications. I'm not sure he is the best for the job as a prime for this project. I talked to a lot of architects about it, and they told me this was a job for a firm with over 100 architects, a big, big shop."
Now that the project is back in the hangar, the question is whether Continental and the Brown administration can bury the hatchet and work together.
"The staff is taking a retaliatory attitude toward Continental," claims one City Hall observer. "It's incredibly stupid, because Continental may be the most important factor in our economic growth."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
On the other side, a Brown staffer claims the airline is trying to wrest control of the airport from the city. "Continental has made it very clear that they would like to manage and run projects at every airport where they have a dominant position. That's the bottom line."
Lanier hopes the Continental debacle prepares Brown to deal with future turbulence at City Hall.
"Things are going to come up on other city work," predicts Lanier, "and they might as well learn early on what they can and cannot do. They simply cannot do this."
Airmail your news tips to the Insider. Call him at (713)280-2483, fax him at (713)280-2496, or e-mail him at email@example.com. By Tim Fleck