Free Market Charade
The Albuquerque convention center continues to be a drain on the city
The "road bond" package may have been the belle of the ball at the Aug. 16 City Council meeting—but it wasn't the most interesting item on the agenda. While most eyes focused on the debate over the inclusion of extending Paseo del Norte in the bond, the 5-4 vote was something of a foregone conclusion.
What wasn't a foregone conclusion, however, was the failure of Councilor Tina Cummins to seal a $4 million a year deal for the Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau (ACVB). Supposedly, it would just slide through the Council. The folks at ACVB were so confident of delivery they didn't even stick around for the vote.
Oh, but they should have.
For 25 years, the city has given ACVB a "no-bid" contract to market the convention center. As a result, the convention center is one of the most under-used facilities of its kind and a perpetual drain on the city.
Last year, city employees were pushed out of the convention center and management became privatized to turn things around. While holding union members accountable, the Council also decided ACVB—a private entity—should feel the cold wind of competition and made renewal of their $4 million contract contingent on a competitive bid.
Problem is, the Marty Chavez administration ignored the Council directive. Cummins, never one to be tagged a government watchdog, decided the executive branch's blowoff warranted the Council's stamp of approval. It was like saying: "Hey, you folks in the administration think you can pick and choose the Council policies you follow? Well, you're right!"
Cummins' original proposal a couple of months ago would have stopped any competition for ACVB but was amended in the Council Finance Committee. The "compromise" version offered by Councilor Eric Griego on Aug. 9, called for a "Request for Information" to gauge interest in the job before bidding the contract.
The compromise bill was more politics as usual, because the Council already passed the same request for information requirement in 2003, but never acted on it.
And when Cummins proposed that any prospective bidder bring membership dues of $1.5 million to the table—something ACVB just happens to have—the goal became crystal clear: Go through the motions of a competitive process while guaranteeing ACVB the millions it wants.
At least one councilor wasn't inclined to go along with the charade.
Councilor Miguel Gomez zeroed in on the insider treatment given when a city employee was hired to oversee the ACVB contract. The Chavez administration allowed Dale Lockett, ACVB's six-figure a year executive director (we don't know Lockett's actual salary because ACVB won't say), to participate in the job interviews and offer his thoughts on the hiring.
Gomez asked why the competitive process ordered by the Council hadn't taken place, and why Lockett was allowed to influence the hiring of a city employee charged with overseeing ACVB's contract.
James Lewis, the city's new chief administrative officer, pled ignorance because he only recently became CAO. While Gomez didn't call him on it, Lewis has spent almost three years as the city's chief operating officer. Where's he been?
Gomez then asked if any other administrators could answer. Sandy Doyle, head of the Dept. of Finance and Administrative Services, stepped forward—and probably shouldn't have.
When Gomez asked Doyle why a private individual, benefiting from a lucrative government contract, was allowed to influence the selection of the person who would oversee that contract, Doyle claimed, “it's not that unusual and happens all the time.”
Asked by Gomez for another example, Doyle said "um" and "ah" a number of times, then admitted she couldn't think of one. Perhaps Doyle was suffering from stage fright or maybe the preferential treatment Lockett received was that unusual.
Council Vice President Eric Griego hit the roof after Gomez's cross-examination and demanded a competitive process for ACVB immediately. Doyle's testimony on the cozy, insider approach to ACVB apparently didn't sit well with the Council veep, who previously sided with union leaders against privatizing the convention center.
Sensing a complete backfire, Cummins requested a deferral. The ACVB now has until September to finesse its dog and pony show and lobby Council members over lunch or dinner on their good intentions.
If the only thing councilors look at are menus, count on ACVB keeping its sugar. But, if councilors learn convention center bookings are down again and the center is still abominably underused, they ought to order an entreé for the ACVB that convention center employees received last year: a hot steaming bowl of free-market competition.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. Payne, a former city councilor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.