It’s a shame the bidding for one of San Antonio’s most lucrative franchises has once again become the source of controversy. An effort to update both the design and the operation of the hugely popular downtown river barges, led by Councilman Roberto Trevino, had been going swimmingly.
A juried competition to come up with a new design for the barges was regarded as open, honest and very successful. The new barges, which will be owned by the city, are a delightful, bright and versatile replacement for the current fleet, which was designed 50 years ago in time for HemisFair.
The competition now is for a 10-year contract to operate the barges — which are expected to gross $15 million to $20 million a year. Final presentations to an 11-member citizen committee charged with ranking the proposals of four teams were made in January. The teams were told lobbyists would not be allowed to address the selection committee.
But on the Friday before the Monday presentation, a Chicago-based team asked city staff if they could have their lawyer address the committee. Unlike lawyers representing the other teams, this lawyer was not registered as a City Hall lobbyist. But he is hardly unknown or without influence there.
Phil Hardberger was a very successful lawyer and chief justice of the 4th Court of Appeals before being elected mayor in 2005. When he left City Hall in 2009 he had an approval rating of 86 percent. As mayor he led the effort to acquire 311 acres for a North Side park, and months after he left office the city named the park after him. His popularity and political muscle is measured by the fact that he successfully led the effort to include $13 million in a proposed bond issue for a controversial land bridge over a thoroughfare separating the east part of the park from the west.
You couldn’t blame San Antonio River Cruises, a subsidiary of Chicago-based Entertainment Cruises, for wanting Hardberger for the presentation. But for city staff to permit it on the basis that he was not a registered lobbyist was wrong. It was a classic distinction without a difference. His role in a brief address was not to address legal issues but to advocate for his client and to influence a governmental decision. That’s the definition of lobbying.
Hardberger’s client won the committee’s recommendation, and may have done so without him. It runs river cruises in several other U.S. cities, including a stunning architectural cruise through downtown Chicago. What’s more, it’s financial bid was compelling.
But someone complained to Mayor Ivy Taylor, and she spearheaded a council decision to redo the process. It is probably the right decision, but it has a cloud attached. Back in 1995 the City Council ignored staff rankings for the river barge contract. Instead, they gave the contract to a key staffer in the Parks Department, which administered the contract. Her husband, not coincidentally, was the late beer distributor Dennis O’Malley, who founded and headed up the San Antonio Parks Foundation.
Their company, Yanaguana Cruises, was embroiled in scandals culminating in being charged by police with cheating the city out of $1.7 million. The district attorney declined to prosecute, but the company paid $125,000 to settle a lawsuit with the city and increased its payments.
Here’s the kicker. The O’Malleys won the contract after backroom dealing by local super-lobbyist Bill Kaufman, who was later given a piece of the operation. Now Kaufman is the lobbyist for the current barge operator, Rio San Antonio Cruises, which reportedly came in second in the current competition.
The Express-News describes Kaufman as “a close, informal adviser to the mayor.” She denies any connection between Kaufman and her decision. But if Kaufman’s client should end up getting the new contract, the ghosts of Yanaguana will haunt the river — and possibly the mayor.