Talkin' Love Field Concessions With the Mayor
Ken Carter, a consultant working for Dallas Love Field Airport food and beverage concessionaire Gilbert Aranza, sent us word yesterday afternoon that the city council's seven minority members are expected to appear at noon today inside City Hall's lobby along with other community leaders for a press conference supporting contract extensions for Aranza's Star Concessions and Hudson Retail Dallas, which operates the retail concessions at Love.
The gathering is undoubtedly a reaction to Mayor Tom Leppert's recent onslaught of radio interviews, his Friday op-ed in the Dallas Business Journal, his campaign's Saturday e-mail blast and Sunday's editorial in The Dallas Morning News.
Leppert's e-mail, which dropped in our in-box around 1:30 Saturday afternoon, urged recipients to contact council members and tell them to vote against the contract extensions at tomorrow's council meeting. It even provided a list of all 14 council members and their e-mail addresses.
Colleen McCain Nelson, who penned Sunday's editorial, confirmed to us that Leppert contacted the editorial board "to request a board meeting before the Love Field vote." While "a couple" of board members joined her when she met with Leppert, only Nelson interviewed Aranza.
"The vast majority of the interviews that we do are conducted by one member of the editorial board," Nelson wrote in an e-mail. "We write 2-3 editorials each day, and the research for each of those editorials often involves several interviews. It would be logistically impossible for us to conduct every interview as a group."
If Angela Hunt is right, it looks like the big vote tomorrow will be postponed. However, we'd be remiss if we didn't pull back the curtain for our full interview with the mayor, which was conducted exactly two weeks ago.
The last time we discussed Willis Johnson's involvement in the concessions at Love Field, Johnson had backed himself into a corner. Johnson, Leppert's top adviser when it comes to all things southern sector, told us that despite Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway's denials and cries of "bullcorn," he had lobbied Caraway on behalf of Concessions International about getting into D/FW Airport.
Our confusion? Caraway has no pull at D/FW because he doesn't sit on the board like, say, Leppert does. Not to worry, Johnson assured us by e-mail, he was talking to Caraway because he had "a board appointee."
We guessed Brenda Reyes because surely he wasn't talking about Betty Culbreath, who told us that Johnson would contact her directly because they have their own relationship, but Johnson never responded. He also failed to respond to our requests for an interview for our cover story.
When Caraway was asked again about Johnson, he said he doesn't think Leppert is trying to open the bidding to "get Willis or particular individual involved," but he refused to elaborate on his dealings with Johnson on the matter.
"For many, many reasons, I just don't want to get into this," he told us. "I don't want to be a part of this one."
However, the Johnson issue was enough for at least one council member to call Leppert out in an executive session at the beginning of the June 2 Love Field Concession Committee meeting. According to a City Hall insider, Tennell Atkins asked City Attorney Tom Perkins to rule on whether Leppert's relationship with Johnson amounted to a conflict of interest. The source tells us that Perkins said he would only tell Leppert individually of his decision, not the full council, so it seemed fitting to start there.
(This is nearly the entirety of our interview with the mayor, with a couple questions left out and some of his responses shortened.)
The first thing I wanted to ask you about is the Willis Johnson issue. I know that you are aware that he's registered as a lobbyist with Concessions International for D/FW Airport, but have you looked at it as a potential conflict on its face?
The issue, Sam, to be truthful with you is I don't care who gets this thing. It makes no difference to me who gets it. So, as a result, it's almost a moot point. Him, them, the current people, anything. It doesn't make any difference to me who gets it. And, I'll tell ya, I didn't know about that. Willis told me, and he's never visited with me about that. The only thing he's told me is that he's not interested in Love Field. They're not interested in Love Field. And that's hearsay. That's all he's told me. But, to me, it's not a point. I don't care who gets this.
I understand you don't care who gets it, but there's still an appearance if he's consulting for a ...
I disagree with that. Any more than the current people are pushing for something know me; I know them too. They know a bunch of council people. That's the same situation. I don't pay Willis anything. Willis doesn't get paid anything by me. [Fact check: Johnson has banked close to $150,000 from Leppert-related campaigns.] So, I disagree. I don't think there's even the appearance of a conflict.
Let's say, hypothetically, the RFP [requests for proposal] would open up and Concessions International would enter a bid, would you see it differently?
Actually, if it opens up, I'm done. I have no role in this thing at all.
Well, you have a vote.
I have no role in it at all and shouldn't be. I, to be truthful with you, would like to see staff once it's bid out and they've got the RFPs to determine it so it's not part of the political process.
So you wouldn't advocate a council vote on it?
I wouldn't advocate for anybody or anything. I don't care who gets it.
But doesn't the council have to vote on it?
The council I'm sure would have to confirm the contract at some point. I have no interest in who gets it.
I understand that, but you'll still vote on it?
As long as the process is viewed as fair and open, that's the only thing I'm out after.
A lot of the council members have brought up these Pappadeax/Pappasito's contracts at D/FW. How do you view those differently?
I just see that as being a straw man, to be truthful with you. If you look out at D/FW, the number they gave me, and I haven't quantified it, is 97 percent of everything is bid out and bid out in an open RFP process, which makes sense to me. They've communicated to me, and I've gone back and asked them, this was a one-off deal where it was downstairs and that sort of thing. To be truthful with you, if somebody came and said, 'Here's a one-off type of deal at ordering chlorine because we don't have time or here's a one-off thing for a concessionaire at the MLK Recreation Center and there's a special circumstance, I wouldn't argue with that. I'm talking about the broader. I'm talking about all of the thing, the 97 percent. That is the issue with me.
So, as far as you know, you haven't voted for any other no-bids at D/FW
I was told I voted on that one. I haven't gone back and checked the record or what the circumstances were.
Don't you think that should be concerning to people that you cast a vote and you don't remember that it was a no-bid?
It had to be three years ago.
Right. But it involved a no-bid, and it involved over 14,000 square feet of space.
Well, and I'm sure what the staff told us at that time was the same thing. It was unusual circumstances, and this was very different than what the general policy was out at D/FW. Again, I would tell you if I saw at D/FW where there were a number of these coming out and there weren't special circumstances or even if special circumstances were generating a number that, all of the sudden, it wasn't becoming an open and fair process, I would yell and scream there the same way that I don't think this is right.
What about the parking contract at Love Field? Do you view that any differently?
Again, I'll be very consistent. I think that we oughta open things up and have RFPs and open it up to a bidding process. I'd like to see all of that done.
All of the time? Never a circumstance when ...
I won't ever say there's a never-ever type of thing, but as a general rule, and especially when we're talking about big contracts and we're talking about over the period of time, yeah, I think those oughta be opened up and bid out.
So the parking contract, given that it's a big contract, would that qualify?
I would assume so, but I don't know the circumstances. So you're asking me a hypothetical, and I don't know the circumstances. But, as a general rule, what I can tell you is I think things oughta be opened up and bid out.
I'm assuming by your comments that you don't remember the last time the parking was extended.
It was on the 10th of June in '09, and there was no RFP for the parking.
I'd love to understand the circumstances. I'm sorry. I don't remember.
I know there hasn't been an official vote, but it seems as though the council is divided along racial lines. How does that strike you?
I'm disappointed, and I think it's unfortunate that it is divided under whatever lines it may be.
Some of the council members expressed that they were offended that you brought up this issue at your State of Downtown Address. Why did you feel like that was the proper venue to talk about this?
I think it's an important issue. And, again, I think it goes beyond the contracts. Clearly, people can disagree, and people look at things differently. I understand that. To me, this is an issue because I want our city to be viewed as open and transparent. I want it to be viewed for either individuals or businesses coming in that there's great opportunities for them. I want the people here to feel that there's opportunities. I also want to see that when we do contracts like this that we're able to look at people in the eye and say, 'We've gone through a bid process. This is what the results are. We've done the best job that we can.' When you do an RFP, you also ask for different ideas, so we ensure that we've got the best ideas. I think those are important, and it goes beyond simply an individual contract. It goes to the reputation of the city. I think it's an important issue. I think if you look, I have tried to stay out of the smaller issues that aren't important to the city. I've gotten involved in this one because, again, I think it reflects on the city. It reflects on what we're trying to accomplish and how we're viewed. And when you get to the credibility of a city, you get to its ethos, and I think very much that becomes a major issue -- one that we should all become concerned with. So I thought it rose to the level that it deserved attention. And if it didn't, to be truthful with you, I wouldn't have.
How much did the Don Hill aftermath play into the perception?
I'm more worried about perceptions going forward. I'm not worried about the past. I'm worried that the people here see what I'm doing, see what this council is doing and feel comfortable and feel that we're doing the right things in a transparent way.
Again, I know there's no official vote, but if you had a 7-7 split and Angela Hunt was out, why didn't you push forward with a vote on April 28?
The hope was that we could craft something that would eliminate 7-7s, 8-7s, 7-8s, however you want to do it. I'm not sure that we've gotten to that. Now, we've got another two weeks, and I'm open to a lot of different things. I'm just want to feel that when people look at it, they look at it and say, 'It's open. It's fair. It's transparent.' If you can check those boxes, then I'm happy. As I said earlier, at that point, I'm done and gone.
I know this doesn't affect how you feel about the issue, but what are your thoughts about the performance of Star Concessions and Hudson Group at the airport?
It's not a question of the people.
I understand that.
I just want to open it up and feel that it is.
I understand that, but ...
And, again, it's not one of my criteria. And, again, my criteria should be that we're not in the business to reward people. ... So to me, that's not the issue. I hope they've done a good job. If they haven't done a good job, then staff oughta raise those sorts of things.
Do you think those advocating for the plan on the table have any ill motives in what they're doing? Do you think they're sincere in wanting to help out the concessionaires for losses from 9/11 ...
I'll give anybody the benefit of the doubt.
(I explain two proposals from Aranza to the city in February 2007 and March 2008 in which he wanted to invest millions at Love Field to open new eateries such as Starbucks and On the Border in exchange for shorter term extensions than what's on the table now.) Were those things that you ever considered or that you even know about?
Again, I'll tell you that I think people invest money because they're going to make money. And, again, my situation would be the same. If we've got a new contract, then let's open it up and bid. If no one else is willing to invest in it, then that comes out in the RFP. If they've got the best ideas and they're creative, the RFP brings those out. There's no reason not to open this process up and invite people putting capital in, people putting ideas in, people putting operating costs in, whatever it may be. That's the reason why you open these things up. And until you open them up, you don't have any perspective on making decisions like that because you don't know what the rest of the market's doing. You haven't created a market.
But if somebody prior to their contract expiring wants to dump a bunch of money into the airport and increase revenues now, isn't that something worth considering?
Well, if they're doing it, then they're gonna make money on it until their contract ends, and that's fine. Let them invest. I'm sure that the money that's put in, they invest it, but they put it in because they were gonna make money on it. This isn't a charitable effort.
No, but those are long-term investments. You'd have to admit that.
But everybody knows what the contract is. Everybody knows how long that contract extends for.
Chris Heinbaugh, Leppert's chief of staff, says: And you know that that terminal is going away?
So that investment is gonna go away one way or another.
One of the things that Aranza asserts is that this is political payback for his advocating and lobbing council members for Forrest Smith's appointment to the D/FW Airport board. What's your response to that?
Other than it being ridiculous?
This was a long process. It was vetted through the Transportation and Environment committee with a 10-0 vote. Where do you think people dropped the ball because there certainly was a lot of discussion from a lot of people that you seemingly have turned around on this -- Sheffie Kadane went from saying it was an excellent plan on February 22 to saying he wanted to open it up for bids at one of the ad hoc committee meetings - so what ...
Keep in mind that this started with the staff recommending in June 2007 that it be an open bid, so it probably got off track several different ways. Clearly, when it came up, and as you know I'm not on the committee, it got on my desk and I tried to raise the issues that I've talked to you about. I think those are important ones.
Another one of Aranza's claims: This is a platform for you to rally for open government and transparency on your way to a bid for U.S. Senate.
I have been very consistent, and you can see the things that I said when I first got involved in campaigning here are the same things that I've continued to say and continue to believe in. If anything, I've been consistent for three and a half years.
Is there a timetable for announcing if you'll run for reelection?
Well, I'll have to make it by the end of the year, clearly.
How productive do you think the ad hoc committee meetings were?
[Pause.] I think there were helpful in the sense of getting some basic data out.
At times it seemed like you had to get combative with city staff because they weren't receptive to the points you were making. Why do you feel like there's a disconnect in the information that you're bringing to the table and the information that they are presenting.
Well, I just wanted to make sure that the data was out. I think there were some questions where there weren't answers, and I just thought those were important pieces of this discussion that weren't out there that people should know about.
All the revenue has to stay in the airport. It can't go to fixing potholes and that kind of stuff. So if Love Field is doing great, it's not in the hole and money isn't pulled out of the general fund for its operations, then why are you so concerned with squeaking every last dollar out of it?
Because that's our responsibility, and that's our obligation.
But wouldn't you want to put more weight into customer service and those factors more than ...
I'll tell ya that those factors can be part of an RFP. You can incorporate all of those.
Steve Salazar said if you're able to pull out a victory on this, it would be an affront to minorities. I wanted to get your comment on that.
Needless to say, I strongly disagree with that. I'll tell ya on the things that we've done, I think what I've done previously as well as in this job, has engaged minorities perhaps more than anybody else in this job. We've gone out and solicited strong minority participation, not only in the projects we're doing, but I've gone out and talked to Parkland. I've gone out and talked to DART. I've gone out and talked to D/FW to try to partner with us on some programs that give real opportunities to minorities. What I'd love to see is, if this is bid openly, great minority participation. And we can ensure great minority participation in this too. That's not what the issue is by any measure.
Why the timing of this? Why bring up your concerns at the March 3 council briefing?
It had gone through the committee process, it came to my desk, and, Sam, I just didn't think it was right. I didn't think that's what we should be doing. The biggest contract this council will ever do, to not bid it, I thought was wrong. So I did what this office can do. I called a briefing on it and raised the issues, which I thought was appropriate. Clearly, at that time when I raised those issues, a number of council people came up to me afterwards and said, 'I understand your point, and I agree with you.'
Did you ask them why they didn't say anything at the briefing?
I don't know if the issues I had raised had not been raised previously. I would have hoped that they had. But if they hadn't, maybe there was some of those new pieces. Maybe I did put it in the light of how important it was of, again, and I want to stress this, not just in terms of this contract, but how people perceive the way the city works. And that in the end is what's going to live with us.
I know that you're not wanting to get into the people behind the contracts, but seeing how Eddie Bernice Johnson is not an active participant in the concessions and she's just sitting back collecting money on this thing, do you see that as an issue? Essentially, if you want minority participation, do you want to see someone in the business so to speak being a participant?
I've been consistent all the way through. I want it open. I want it bid out. I don't care who gets it.
Do you care though ...
I want it open, and I want it bid out. I don't want to worry about the people. I want it open and bid out. If it's open and it's bid out, it meets my criteria.
So you don't care if somebody comes in and says, 'I'm going to fulfill my minority participation by giving a bunch of silent partners who don't really have any active part of this ...
Clearly, when you set it up and there's enough rules that define that, it oughta fall in with whatever the parameters are. That's gonna be something that the staff oughta make sure that they feel comfortable meets whatever guidelines are in place. My issue is, from where I sit as mayor, I want people to look at this as an open, fair process. If it does that, it meets my criteria, and that's all I care about.
I understand that, but if you've got somebody who isn't a participant and you've got somebody who is ...
I'm not going to go there. Somebody else is going to deal with that. I'm simply saying that this has to be open and transparent. It needs to be bid out. If it does that, then it's going to meet my criteria.
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