Doomed to Repeat Itself?

Corporate Charity: Again, with Feeling

The past is the past. That, and other truisms of great philosophical weight, are currently making the city hall circuit, in some kind of Orwellian campaign to erase the grotesqueries of yesterday. What some want run through the mental paper-shredder are those wanton years of the go-go Eighties, when the Chamber of Commerce handled, or rather bungled, the marketing of Austin's tourism industry and millions of dollars of public funding.

"Tomorrow is another day." Thus the collective refrain echoed within council chambers last Thursday, as Chamber of Commerce luminaries and corporate hoteliers in their finest livery pandered for a second chance at the public trough. Never mind that little has changed; it's many of the same people wanting reinstatement. In other words, people like Juan Portillo, owner of Tramex Travel, and Ron Paynter, general manager of the Marriott, would like to reprivatize the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau (ACVB). It was seized by the city in 1989, after the operation suffered from a shocking lack of accountability. Supporting their privatization cause on the city side are Karen Jordan, matriarch of the ACVB, and those ever-in-pocket Chambermaids, Mayor Bruce Todd and Councilmember Ronney Reynolds.

Yes, Austin's tourism industry is soaring, they crowed, but what will happen when the economy does a U-turn? Besides, rang the chorus, the Alamo City puts about $10 million towards tourism, while Austin contributes only $1.8 million. Never mind that Austin's natural features and capital status keep us virtually apace with San Antonio. We can do so much better.

So let us -- the Chamber and the hotel industry -- form a 22-person non-profit to assume control of the ACVB's tourist marketing duties. We'll make sure there's a seat for the major tourist attractions in Austin. Of course, we'll need title to $1.9 million of the city's annual hotel bed-tax collection. But with that money, we can cultivate donations and advertising revenue from the private sector, and we'll market Austin such as never has been seen before.

But then there's the past. In the mid-1980s, the Chamber used revenue from the hotel bed tax for political purposes, to campaign against development regulations. Many considered it illegal. And a 1989 performance audit found that accountability and documentation of expenditures was almost non-existent. Incredibly, the only competitively bid contract had to do with the audit.

But there were no safeguards then, cried the Privatize-It crowd, and that will completely change this time around. "Nothing is to be gained from being guided by the anger of mistakes made eight years ago," imparted Kerry Tate, owner of the advertising firm of Tate Austin, and the Chamber's grande dame. Chimed Todd: "I hope, as opposed to bringing up history, that we also look at how it's being structured."

But even the proposed structure, forwarded by staff as of last Thursday, had its problems -- though to hear Todd et al. describe it, the proposal includes a list of "Thou shalt nots" that would satisfy a priest. In reality, the strongest "safeguards" were regular audits and a public meeting every four months. The rest of the meetings on how to spend the public's money would apparently occur behind closed doors. Moreover, the "safeguards" existed nowhere in the proposed by-laws, only in Karen Jordan's head. She suggested that those come weeks later, when the council and the non-profit sign a contract on the operation of the Bureau.

What did exist in the proposed by-laws was a hole big enough to drive a truckload of money through. Missing were those items that are standard fare for an agency babysitting public money, like competitive bidding requirements, minority subcontracting regulations, and adherence to the Open Meetings Act. About the only written "safeguard" was a clause requiring board members to recuse themselves from voting on contracts for which their company aspires. But the rest of the clause is essentially an endorsement of low-down shenanigans. Although officers must recuse themselves, they shouldn't be prevented from "transacting business with the Corporation on a competitive, arms-length, basis." The exact meaning of arms-length was unavailable at press time, but it apparently leaves the hands free to roam. As a hypothetical example, mind you, Chamber-matron Tate could fill the Chamber's seat on the non-profit, while Tate Austin pursues a wondrous contract with the ACVB to market Austin.

Despite the holes, Todd had nothing but praise for Jordan, ecstatic that she went to such lengths to protect the public. Councilmembers Jackie Goodman, Gus Garcia, Beverly Griffith, and Daryl Slusher weren't as pleased. (Eric Mitchell was absent for most of the discussion.) They insisted that the restrictions go in the by-laws, or there would be no approval of the non-profit.

Goodman and Slusher in particular led the fight, to the vexation of Tate and the cluster of hotel boys sitting in the back. At one point during the meeting, Slusher, who aims to cut down on the council's executive session habits (secret meetings), demanded that the ACVB abide by the Open Meetings Act. The Suits groaned collectively, squirming in their seats like hemorrhoid-sufferers. Allowing public attendance at every meeting, not just four a year, is apparently too much to ask. But The Suits won relief, cheering when Todd announced that he wouldn't support an open meetings requirement.

Towards meeting's end, democracy prevailed. With Reynolds and Todd hopelessly outnumbered, Jordan agreed to redo the by-laws for today's council meeting, adding stricter regulations like bidding procedures and application of the Open Records Act. Still up for debate is whether the Open Meetings Act should be included. Jordan is opposed, claiming the ACVB's marketing strategies would be revealed, benefitting neighboring cities like Round Rock that compete with Austin for tourism. Goodman seems willing to concede to Jordan's arguments, and she could take Garcia with her. Though Garcia voted to include more safeguards in the by-laws, he also made the original motion to approve the privatization effort last Thursday. That means Griffith and Slusher could be left out in the cold with their open meetings provision. So will public accountability, except, of course, for four meetings a year. Or maybe things really will be different this time around. As the Marriott's Paynter assures, "That was then, this is now."

The council also delayed forming a committee to study privatizing the city's neighborhood-based health care clinics, which act as the city's safety net for indigent care. Slusher, Griffith, and Goodman had expressed concern that the committee, the make-up of which had been proposed by Health and Human Services Director Sue Milam, was hopelessly weighted with privatization proponents. A public hearing on the privatization initiative will be held on August 22 at 6:30pm.


This week in council: another vote on creating the ACVB non-profit. Also, a Slusher ordinance proposing that five councilmembers must approve an executive (secret) session, and public hearings at 5 and 5:30pm regarding proposed fee increases in trash collection, and water and wastewater service. n

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