City Hall

Mary Suhm Gives Us the Inside Baseball Behind the Love Field Airport Concessions Vote

Even though Mayor Tom Leppert won an important battle when Angela Hunt voted on August 18 against a plan to extend the concession contracts at Love Field Airport for three well-connected Democrats -- U.S. Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, state Rep. Helen Giddings and former Dallas Citizens Council director Gilbert Aranza -- in favor of a proposal co-authored by Republicans Leppert and council member Ron Natinsky, there were lots of questions we had about the Leppert-Natinsky plan.

We took our queries to City Manager Mary Suhm, who tells us that the agenda item ultimately approved by an 11-4 vote by the council was added by Leppert, hence the words "via Mayor Leppert" appearing in parentheses on the agenda. This is unusual -- Leppert putting an item on the agenda -- but not unheard of, as Leppert shares this power with Suhm. A council member may also put an item on the agenda if they secure signatures from four of their colleagues.

Suhm explains the importance of the distinction between Leppert placing an item on the agenda instead of her in a revealing Q&A after the jump, but before that, we peppered her with questions about the Leppert-Natinsky plan. First, we found it odd that the agenda noted that there would be "no cost consideration to the city." Given all the staff time required to bid out each concession space and that the city now has to hire someone to manage the spaces (the concessionaires handled this previously), this couldn't be true? Could it?

"Results from the action may eventually have cost considerations," she says. "It's sometimes a fine line when you say no cost consideration, but it only refers to that action at the time."

So, because the city wasn't dishing out money at that moment, there wasn't any cost consideration, but make no mistake, the Leppert-Natinsky plan will cost the city plenty of dough. Just how much remains to be seen.

When asked to ballpark the amount it will cost to bid out all the spaces, Suhm couldn't tell us, only estimating that three to five staffers will handle the job. And as for the new management structure, her office is "working on it" and evaluating other airports, but there's no cost at this point.

"The transition is going to be hard," she says.

It seemed like your office was charged with coming up with some of the new options that were going to be looked at, but none of the new options came from your office. What was the reason behind that?

Well, if you go back to 'via Tom Leppert' and the questions you were just asking me, if I put something on the agenda, you would expect to be able to get the answers that you're asking me if I put it on the agenda. So, those are his. And, making no criticism of them, they're just his.

But why didn't you feel it necessary to come up with your own option to put out there?

Well, we put two options out there, and they didn't want either one of them. When a council is split about something and if we can't get them to go into a cohesive direction, then it becomes a bit of a challenge. And they don't function like they usually function.

Was your sense that what you had come up with and was approved in February was the best you could come up with?

We put two approaches on, both of which I felt very comfortable and good about, and clearly neither one of them was going to work.

What do you mean by you "put two approaches on"?

Well, we originally started out saying, 'Let's bid all this,' and they said, 'Nuh-uh. Not going to do that.' I'm going back to three years ago at the beginning. And then over a lot of work and a lot of time, which is what we usually do when we have an issue that's challenging, is we try to reach a point where the council can agree on an approach and one that I can recommend as the manager and put that out there. And that one flew a little while and then didn't fly.

So you just basically felt like you exhausted ...

No. No. No. No. Some of those [new options] we worked on and some of those we participated in. When I say I didn't put it on the agenda, that means I can't answer everybody's questions about it. That means I can go get it done, but if I put something on the agenda, I'm going to tell you how I'll do it -- all those questions you just asked. But if council tells me to go in a different direction, I know enough to know I can get there. I can't tell you the details.

But you didn't endorse what was on the agenda.

It didn't have anything to do with endorsing. I didn't spend a whole lot of time looking at how that would work.

But your office is charged with coming up with plans that the council will endorse. In this case, you didn't. Leppert did.

But he has that right too. He can put stuff on the council agenda, and that's what he did.

I understand that, but in some cases, I would imagine what he would come up with and what you would come up with would be similar and you guys would agree. And that's what I'm getting at is it doesn't seem like ...

It's not about agreement. It's about: Did I spend the time looking at it? How I would carry it out and work on it and accomplish it for the city? If I were ever in the position, and I don't think the mayor and I would ever get here, to think this is dead wrong, no way, no how that I would recommend this for the city as a professional manager, I would stand up and say it. It would probably be the last thing I stood up and said, but I would. If I put something on, I'm going to be able to handle the questions and talk about the path forward. If somebody else wants to put it on, I have a responsibility. I can say, 'Yup, that'll work. Can't tell you how, but we can get it done and come back later and tell you how.' And that is really the case in this situation. For some of those options, I couldn't tell you that. But he took the prerogative to put it on and get a decision, and in special cases that's probably the right thing to do.

Did you think it was in this case?

I am at the point that I have to bring the council to a consensus so that we can move forward with something that has to be done, and that's where we are now. It wasn't a very pleasant process all the way around, and I don't think anyone would tell you it was.

Did you feel like a lot of the work from your office was trampled on based on what Leppert did?

Sam, it's not about trampling on. It's about reaching a solution that moves the city forward on a particular project that they have to get done and is not harmful to the city. And they get to make those decisions.

I understand, but you run the city. You put forth what you thought was best for the city, and then Leppert came in at the last minute and said, All this hard work that your office has done, your recommendation sucks.

But, Sam, that's their job. That's their job. And my job is, 'OK. I gave you what I thought was best for that circumstance, that time, that situation. You don't like it? Give me another one.' And my responsibility is: Can I do that? Will that work? Will that be harmful? And I answered all those questions going down the road. That's exactly what a policy body is for.

I would imagine that's not the way you prefer things happen.

I'm not faulting anyone or anything in that process. I'm just saying we don't want to do that very often. We like to be able to recommend a path forward, a methodology, a cost, risk, advantages, and bring everybody to a consensus and move forward. That's what we think the job is, but any executive running an organization has an occasion when his or her board says, 'That's not the way we want to do that.'

That's fair enough, but it didn't seem like it was the board so much in this case as it was one individual, although we could argue about that.

Well, that's a leadership dynamic among a board -- a chair of a board and a board. I don't think that what you saw here was anything particularly unusual that you see on occasion in other circumstances. You know that.

I know, but I'm looking at it from your perspective.

Well, it's a tough situation, but at the same time, I understand that it's their prerogative.

And I understand that too. You've got to work with them ...

I do have to have some flexibility and I do have to work with them and I respect their choices, but if I don't I speak my mind ... and it comes to the point when I couldn't, I would leave. You don't need to assume that I would make all sorts of concessions to work with them because I won't.

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Sam Merten
Contact: Sam Merten

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