Mayor Ivy Taylor has raised serious questions about the selection process to manage the city’s new fleet of River Walk barges, potentially sinking a Chicago-based bidder. On Thursday, the City Council said it will rebid the contract.
Unfortunately, however, by raising concerns without much supporting evidence, Taylor has created what appears to be an unnecessary political cloud over the contracting process. This isn’t to say the city couldn’t have done things better, or we don’t take Taylor’s concerns seriously.
But the available evidence doesn’t support Taylor’s statement the contracting process was “tainted ... beyond redemption.”
The issue in question, as reported by Express-News journalist Josh Baugh, is former Mayor Phil Hardberger’s decision to speak to an 11-member selection committee. Hardberger, an attorney, represents Chicago-based Entertainment Cruises. It was one of four groups that submitted proposals to manage the city’s barge fleet. Given the importance of tourism and the River Walk to our community, it’s a high-profile contract that has a direct impact on San Antonio’s image with visitors.
All four groups presented to the 11-member committee on Jan. 30. City policy does not allow for lobbyists to attend such meetings and traditionally has not allowed attorneys. But on Jan. 25, Entertainment Cruises submitted its list of meeting attendees, which included Hardberger as its attorney and a member of its core team. The city granted an exemption and extended that exemption to attorneys with the other groups. Lobbyists were still not allowed to attend the meetings.
In an email exchange with the city, Paul Sanett of Entertainment Cruises said Hardberger would be “attending as part of our core team, not just as a representative of our counsel.” Sanett said he would do most of the presenting, but Hardberger would speak for a couple minutes about the “community aspect” of the group’s proposal. The city said this would be fine — and granted the same privilege to the other groups, but with short notice.
In a Feb. 17 email to City Manager Sheryl Sculley, Taylor expressed concerns about these last-minute changes in the contracting process, as well as “city staff who were unwilling or unable” to follow and honor the city’s ordinances for “unregistered lobbying.”
She recommended either issuing a new request for proposals or eliminating Entertainment Cruises, the top-ranked respondent. On Thursday, the council opened up the process to all comers, but it’s thought that the relatively short turnaround — bids due by the end of March — means the original four will likely be the sole bidders again.
Taylor, it should be noted, is close with attorney Bill Kaufman, who represents Rio San Antonio Cruises, the current operator and another bidder. She has said this connection has played no role in her decision to raise these concerns.
It would have been best for the city to not allow Hardberger to speak during Entertainment Cruises’ presentation. As a former mayor, Hardberger’s word carries significant weight. And while the city allowed other attorneys to also speak, it did not provide much notice. The other teams weren’t notified until late Friday about this change in policy, and they were expected to present Monday. That’s a very short window to adjust a presentation.
But these are relatively minor issues. Hardberger wasn’t just an attorney. He is a principle in the team making the pitch, though it is unclear if early documents in the process disclose this. He said he spoke for a couple minutes. The other teams had an opportunity to include attorneys in their presentations.
Short of additional evidence, it’s hard to see a conflict that warrants so much disruption.
Redoing the RFP will further delay a contract that has been languishing since 2014, potentially creating headaches for the city’s upcoming tricentennial celebration. National companies will, undoubtedly, notice this drama, too. In a statement, Entertainment Cruises said the company respects Taylor and council’s decision to start a new RFP. Company officials also expressed confidence it will come out on top again.
Unless Taylor has more evidence of unfairness, this disruption muddied the process and gives the appearance of a preferred local bidder.
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