Jul 29 - Aug 4, 2004 
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Payne's World

Breaking with Convention

Another sorry chapter in the Albuquerque Convention Center debacle

By Greg Payne

If you're a high-ranking city official in the midst of hiring an employee to oversee a couple of multi-million dollar a year contracts the city has with private companies, do you:

a) Search for a no-nonsense individual who will look out for taxpayers, crack the whip and make certain the terms of the city's contracts are being met.

b) Invite the heads of the two organizations benefiting from these contracts to participate in the interview process, then solicit their input on who should be hired.

This actually played out at City Hall recently and, keeping with tradition, the city officials involved went with (b), even though it's akin to asking the fox's thoughts on who should guard the henhouse.

The contracts in question are with SMG, a Philadelphia-based management company that now runs the Albuquerque Convention Center and the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau (ACVB). ACVB has had a $4 million dollar "no-bid" contract with the city for 25 years to—ostensibly—market the Convention Center. Because the Convention Center is one of the most under-used facilities of its kind in the country and a perpetual drain on the city, the center's management was privatized in 2003 with SMG winning a competitive process to help reduce the financial hemorrhaging.

Complaints about the cozy hiring process (some might call it a conflict of interest) made the rounds of City Hall, so I called Fred Mondragon, the city's new Office of Economic Development director and one of three city bureaucrats comprising the hiring committee. Asked if representatives of SMG and ACVB were included in the job interviews, Mondragon initially answered, "no." Told that people were on record stating the opposite, Mondragon suddenly remembered that, oh yes—SMG and ACVB had participated in the hiring of the individual who will oversee their contracts.

I will say this—there's nothing City Hall does better than conducting business as usual. The faces may change, but nine times out of 10 the game remains the same: insiders first, taxpayers last.

I also want to cancel the November elections because they're a distraction from the War on Terror. Now check out this drive.

Tina Cummins' swearing-in speech as a new Councilor two and a half years ago was brief: “Well, let's party!” Cummins is now doing her darndest to keep the party going for the ACVB.

When the City Council narrowly approved the privatization of the Convention Center, it also voted 8-1 [on legislation I sponsored] to place the ACVB's $4 million dollar a year contract marketing the Convention Center out to bid when the current contract expires in March, 2005. For two and a half decades, ACVB's “no-bid” contract has been renewed even though the Convention Center has one of the lowest utilizations rates in the nation.

Cummins argues that, since Albuquerque is preparing for its 300th birthday bash in 2006 (“Let's party!”), having ACVB compete for its contract in early 2005 will be a distraction. Will Cummins extend that logic to the 2005 city elections when the Mayor and five out of nine City Councilors (including Cummins) face voters? If she deems the city-wide election a "distraction" to the tricentennial party, will Cummins cancel that competitive process, too?

Well, that was the week after the Richard Copp exposé, and we were just drained.

Jim Ludwick, a veteran City Hall reporter for the Albuquerque Journal, gave Cummins' “no-bid” legislation the sort of superficial reporting normally associated with the paper's Food section. Despite a lengthy write-up and placement on the front-page of Metro, Ludwick offered a lightweight story with zero background on why ACVB's contract is up for bid in the first place.

Worse, Ludwick extensively quoted Dale Lockett (ACVB's chief executive) on the merits of Cummins “no-bid” proposal without mentioning the over $100,000 a year Lockett receives from ACVB. Of course, Lockett's opposed to bidding the contract—his six-figure salary is at stake! Lockett, by the way, is one of the folks who was in on selecting the city employee who will oversee ACVB's contract.

Partially redeeming Ludwick's slip-shod reporting was a Journal editorial (“Cummins No-Bid Plan Bad for City Tourism”) that covered in 275 words what Ludwick couldn't with twice the space.

Novel concept ... a full day's labor for a full day's pay.

Mayor Martin Chavez should be applauded for taking a tough stand in labor negotiations with the city's solid waste workers. At issue is a long-standing city policy allowing city trash collectors to call it a day when they finish their garbage routes. Chavez wants the policy to end, and he's right for sticking to his guns.

I spent a “day” riding with one of our solid waste employees (a great guy playing by the current rules). We left the Solid Waste offices at 6:30 a.m., ran his Downtown area route, made a trip to the city dump on the far Westside of town, finished at 11:30 a.m. and it was quitting time.

Additionally, if you've wondered why city garbage trucks blaze through residential neighborhoods, you might consider the unintended incentive this policy provides—and thank the Mayor for making the right call.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. Payne, a former city councilor, can be reached at greg@alibi.com.

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