Editor’s Note: San Antonio attorney Frank Burney represents Go Rio San Antonio, the partnership of Landry’s Restaurants and local business owners Hope Andrade and Lisa Wong. Andrade also serves as chair of VIA Metropolitan Transit. Go Rio finished first by a single point over Chicago-based Entertainment Cruises, represented by San Antonio attorney and former Mayor Phil Hardberger, which finished first in the first round of scoring for the 10-year, $100 million contract to operate tourist and taxi barges on the downtown San Antonio River.

The following commentary was submitted in response to Editor Robert Rivard’s commentary published Sunday: The Big Fix: River Barges and Runoffs Make for Ugly Politics. The Rivard Report welcomes commentaries and other submissions presenting diverse viewpoints on issues of community interest.

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Editor Robert Rivard is certainly entitled to his opinion on the River Barge RFP, but being the professional he is, I know he bases his opinions on facts, not alternative facts.  Let’s take those opinions one at a time, highlighting the factual support:

Rivard’s column: “The team finished a distant fourth out of four bidders in the first review by City staff, yet somehow maneuvered itself into first place by a single point after Taylor demanded a second review.”

After a near unanimous City Council determined the first RFP evaluation was flawed (not just the Mayor as alleged in the column), City of San Antonio staff evaluated five proposers in what most believe was an honest, transparent process. Out of five primary evaluation criteria, Go Rio was rated best over Entertainment Cruises in three of five categories, and it received the top score on the overall matrix.

One key matrix, which arguably is the most important for taxpayers, is that Go Rio guaranteed $73 million in revenues over the 10-year term of the contract, $28 million more than Entertainment Cruises, which guaranteed $45 million. That means if Go Rio is selected, San Antonio will have an extra $3 million annually guaranteed to spend on protecting our city, building sidewalks, and solving other problems.

Rivard’s column: “In that second review, Go Rio shifted majority control of the partnership from Landry’s, which has limited cruise experience, to Andrade and Wong, who have no experience but qualified for bonus points as minorities and local bidders.”

I have no idea of the factual basis for this assertion. Lisa and Hope were certified as the majority owners of Go Rio by the Go Rio San Antonio,LLC Cert & Letter on Jan. 18. Together Hope as CEO and Lisa as executive vice president own 51% of the stock of Go Rio and fill two of the three Board positions, thereby controlling Go Rio. Since the second RFP was not released until March 1, the assertion that Go Rio shifted control of the partnership to Landry’s for the “second review”  is just wrong. From over a year ago when Lisa and Hope asked Landry’s to join their partnership as the minority operator, the structure of Go Rio has not changed. Lisa and Hope have always and still have majority control.

(Editor’s note: A published correction to Rivard’s column on this point has been made.)

Secondly, the matrix of criteria to be used in evaluating proposals was set by the City Council at a B Session more than one year ago. Each point is valued the same; there are no “bonus points.” Our Council has repeatedly established policy that having local entities apply, particularly those that have historically been underutilized such as minorities and women, is in the best interests of our community. By doing so, this policy insures that local businesses participate in City contracts, employing and creating opportunities locally rather than leaving San Antonio for Chicago.

The Chicago group could have created local partnerships, going through the certification process with South Central Texas Regional Certification Agency (SCTRCA) as Go Rio did, but apparently Chicago does not believe in creating local opportunities. It did not even offer Chef Johnny Hernandez anything more than a handshake that might lead to serving a few meals on the River Walk. Now Chicago “promises” it will work out something with Johnny. What’s next? Are they going to “promise” the City more guaranteed revenues, too?

Obviously a bidder can’t lose and then promise to do more. That’s the reason we have sealed bids and each respondent has to stand on what they submitted by the deadline.  It is illegal to come back and offer more.

Rivard’s column: “Andrade might be the Go Rio CEO and controlling shareholder on paper, but the former Texas secretary of state and owner of small businesses has no experience in the hospitality or river cruise industries.  “…whose members have only modest credentials to claim the business…”

Rivard attacks two of San Antonio’s leading Latinas as unqualified, even though both women have built many businesses that have served customers for more than 35 years in San Antonio. Hundreds of thousands of locals and tourists frequent and enjoy their businesses.  They provide high quality service and a San Antonio experience, employing hundreds of local citizens. The River Walk is a hospitality business, too. And, as a former secretary of state and ambassador for the state of Texas throughout the world, Hope is highly qualified to attract tourists and locals to the River Walk.

His attacks on Hope and Lisa, which copy Chicago’s attacks, are nothing compared to the negative attacks launched at Landry’s. So let’s look at the facts.

Landry’s opened its second restaurant (out of more than 600) in San Antonio 27 years ago. Since that time, Landry’s has invested more than $60 million in our city, employing more than 1,000 locals annually.  It took over the operation of the Tower of Americas, and doubled revenues and payments to the City from $7 million to $14 million.

Landry’s also operates marinas, theme parks, attractions, convention hotels, and more than 600 hospitality venues world-wide, with more than $3 billion in revenues.  Over 7 million visitors go through its attractions and vessels annually. Landry’s is the only company that Disney allows to independently operate at its theme parks. Many of Landry’s venues are our favorite restaurants, such as Rainforest Cafe, Morton’s, Saltgrass, and Chart House, where more than 175,000 Americans eat daily.

In light of these facts,  it is not accurate to assert that Go Rio has  “modest credentials.”

Rivard’s column: “The mayor sat stone-faced as Hardberger addressed her and council members, warning them, ‘You are the stewards of our river.’”

I would suggest that the reason council was surprised with Hardberger’s remarks was not his comments about the river but rather his Biblical threat that if the Council did not vote for his client, they were guilty of  “… impure hearts and acts…”. If my religious memory serves me well, our Lord, in his Sermon on the Mount, admonished the crowd the way to salvation was with a “pure heart.” The Council likely was responding to condemnation by a lobbyist if it did not vote for his client.

But a more important question is why this RFP is more politicized than most? What’s different about this RFP from others?  Why isn’t the highest ranked team awarded the contract, one that offers the most money? Why are the rules being changed to support a Chicago proposer?

As readers ponder those questions, please keep in mind these additional facts:

A popular former mayor of our City, for the first time in our City’s history, has clarified that he will financially benefit from a contract with the City if awarded, and not just any contract, but the largest contract the City has ever offered to operate one of its assets.

A long-standing rule that prohibits lawyers from participating in the selection committee process was changed.

The first place finisher did not receive staff recommendation, which rarely happens. For the first time, it is being suggested that SBEDA and local presence should not count. And now, the Chicago bidder is being allowed to change its bid to add local partners.

Hope and Lisa stand ready to discuss their proposal to insure the facts are known. Go Rio trusts Council will make its decision based on the facts.

Frank Burney

Frank Burney

Frank Burney is a local attorney and lobbyist.