The City Council on Thursday decided to restart the bidding process for the 10-year, multi-million dollar contract to operate the San Antonio River Walk barges after Mayor Ivy Taylor questioned the fairness of the process.

The decision during an executive session follows Taylor’s statements earlier this week calling the bidding process tainted “beyond redemption” and lacking transparency.

Mayor Ivy Taylor had stated in an email to City Manager Sheryl Sculley last week that she sees two options to move the selection process forward: “Scrap the existing process and issue a new RFP, or eliminate the top-ranked respondent and have the City Council interview the remaining respondents.”

In executive session, Council decided to have city staff  issue a new Request for Proposals (RFP) and start the process again. The RFP will be issued next Wednesday, March 1, and will be due by the end of the month. Council is slated to vote on the contract in May, at least two months after it was expected.

The frontrunner to win the contract had been San Antonio River Cruises, which is owned by Chicago-based Entertainment Cruises and has hired local attorney and former Mayor Phil Hardberger to represent the company. Taylor was concerned that because the former mayor was allowed to address the 11-member citizen selection committee as part of the company’s response to a RFP, the other applicants were not given a fair shot.

Entertainment Cruises Vice President Paul Sanett issued a statement Friday saying the company respects the Council’s decision and that the company will bid on the contract again.

“The selection committee conducted a robust and transparent process using a rigorous set of objective criteria to evaluate bidders, and according to media reports, we came out well ahead of our competitors,” the statement read. “We … are confident our proposal to elevate the river barge experience through state of the art innovations, a Community-first approach and to provide more revenue to the City of San Antonio, will again be selected.

“We look forward to competing in this process and to serving the people of San Antonio for many years to come.”

The current river barge operator, Rio San Antonio Cruises, is allegedly in second place for the contract. The City began the process in 2014 to purchase new, state-of-the-art barges to replace the decades-old fleet design and develop a new contract for the operator.

In an email sent to Sculley on Feb. 10, Taylor said she was “concerned about the integrity of the process” and asked Sculley to look into several questions she had about the contract and the RFP process.

Sculley and City Attorney Andy Segovia responded to Taylor’s concerns in a Feb. 12 email.

“I am fully confident that the selection process was fair and objective given the process parameter and Legal requirements,” Sculley stated. “In short, there was nothing in the process that gave any proposal an unfair advantage over the other proposals and the scoring differential reinforces that the recommended proposal is the strongest for the City of San Antonio.”

Taylor told the Rivard Report on Monday that one of her staffers was alerted by a committee member to Hardberger’s “convincing” presentation on Jan. 20.

City staff told the San Antonio River Cruises team that Hardberger’s presence would be “fine,” according to emails obtained by the Express-News.

Taylor declined to identify the member of the committee who she then spoke to regarding their concerns about Hardberger’s two-minute presentation.

“It’s still apparent to me that there was an issue with last-minute rule changes and confusion about the role of attorneys in the presentations,” Taylor said. “The top issue is the presence of the attorney and what [their] role is. … Lobbyists are not allowed in presentations. Because of his notoriety in the community, [perhaps] no one spoke up to say it was inappropriate.

“Maybe his presence wasn’t inappropriate,” she added, “but the role of the attorneys should have been to answer questions or clarify positions of clients.”

Hardberger confirmed Monday that he made a two-minute presentation to the committee, but that it was as a “core” member of the application team.

“I’m not a lobbyist,” he told the Rivard Report. “I’ve never been a lobbyist in the past.”

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org