Passing the Bucks

In newspaper terminology, there's what's called a "Hey, Martha" story. That's when a guy glances over a page of the paper and sees something so incredible that he has to share it with his wife/girlfriend and yells out, "Hey, Martha!"

Well, a story on the Houston Chronicle's front page last week met all the criteria for a full-scale "Hey, Martha." There was a picture of a beaming Jimmie Schindewolf, formerly known as the second most powerful person in city government. And the headline had "Schindewolf coming off bench" (let's not miss a chance for a sports analogy) as he was "expected to land $600,000 ballpark contract."

Wow. As the former co-chief of staff over the city's Public Works Department, the $116,603-a-year Schindewolf left behind a department known for misconstructed street projects, fund-shuffling and cost overruns. Oh yes, they built things on time and they built a lot of things (or rather, contracted out the building), but were the projects done right? Recent audits say otherwise.

So why is Jimmie Schindewolf the best person the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority could find to oversee construction of the downtown baseball park? Are we such a small town that we need to recycle the same names in different positions? No matter what the records attached to those names?

As a city department head, Schindewolf discouraged audits or reviews that might slow down city projects. How is he supposed to provide the kind of oversight on the ballpark that he didn't want on his city projects?

The outrageousness of his $600,000 contract ($300,000 a year for two years) is surpassed only by word that Schindewolf asked for twice that amount. At least someone choked on that figure. But when Sports Authority co-chairman Billy Burge says Schindewolf's contract is a good deal for the city, as he did the other day, he must think the people of Houston are stupid.

As detailed by the Press in several articles, while the head of public works, Schindewolf removed his projects from scrutiny by hiring layers of consultants to do work the city had previously done. Similarly, responsibility for taxpayer funds to be administered by the Sports Authority (itself one step removed from direct control) would be transferred to Schindewolf, a private consultant.

What happens if Schindewolf actually finds that something is not being built right? What happens if Brown & Root or any subcontractor tests below specifications? Well, city roadwork projects done in the last few years did test below specifications, as has been verified in recent audits. Paving projects routinely failed to meet specifications when tested; some even started to crack and buckle while under construction. And what did Schindewolf do? Next to nada. He almost never forced contractors to make good on substandard work, costing the city millions. Why should he change his method of operation now, particularly given that he and Brown & Root have long been pals?

Schindewolf brought his longtime henchman Jerry Dinkins to his new company. Now, here's a great choice. Almost every project Dinkins touched as assistant public works director was mired in delays, cost overruns and construction blunders. He was skilled at diverting funds from one contract to another; unfortunately, city rules say you're not supposed to do that. Under Dinkins's watch, two different consulting firms were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for doing the same design work. And another Dinkins project, the renovation of Miller Outdoor Theatre, missed so many deadlines that the start of the 1998 theater season was delayed.

Known as a mad dog on deadlines, Schindewolf usually made sure proposed construction was finished and the money spent on schedule. The question of quality ran a distant second. Public works' computer records are such a mess, it's practically impossible to tell how much a given road project cost the city without piecing together documents from the files. So how is Schindewolf equipped to manage the costs of a $249.5 million ballpark?

Fortunately, what on May 19 looked close to a done deal stalled the next day. City Councilmen Orlando Sanchez and Joe Roach questioned the need for Schindewolf's position -- and Roach suggested that Brown & Root, the construction management contractor, should manage the construction itself. Sanchez asked whether candidates other than Schindewolf were interviewed for the job. He got an indignant response from Sports Authority Chairman Jack Rains. "Look at the talent on that committee -- Billy Burge, Wayne Smith and the rest -- and compare it with the construction qualifications of Councilman Sanchez," Rains said. "Frankly, it doesn't compare."

The next day, however, the Sports Authority postponed hiring Schindewolf so that Mayor Lee Brown could review the contract. This introduced an interesting dynamic: Schindewolf left shortly after the start of the Brown administration, when Brown brought back former city finance official Al Haines as his chief administrative officer with oversight over all city departments. Brown asked Schindewolf to stay on, but it was clear Schindewolf's role would not be as powerful as it had been under mayor Bob Lanier. Haines had a high profile during mayor Kathy Whitmire's reign (Schindewolf resigned early in that tenure), then left the city after Lanier came into office when Mayor Bob brought Schindewolf back for a top position. Who's in and who's out in Houston's City Hall might affect how the current mayor regards putting Schindewolf in a potent position.

It's difficult to understand why the Sports Authority would allow Schindewolf to be responsible for taxpayers' money. As reported in the Press last November, according to public works deputy director Buddy Barnes, the absence of audits or reviews of city projects wasn't an oversight, but policy. Schindewolf himself ordered that annual assessments of the program consultants should be avoided.

And this is the best person the Sports Authority could find to oversee its multimillion-dollar construction project? Maybe, as one longtime observer said, they chose Schindewolf because he and his buddies have excelled at making contractors feel very comfortable for a lot of years. And that should make taxpayers feel very uncomfortable.

Contact Margaret Downing at margaret_downing@


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