(From left) Former Tricentennial CEO Edward Benavides and former Centro San Antonio CEO Pat DiGiovanni
(From left) Former Tricentennial CEO Edward Benavides and former Centro San Antonio CEO Pat DiGiovanni Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Facing a rising tide of protest over his management of the Tricentennial Commission and a lucrative no-bid contract awarded to KSAT-TV, longtime City of San Antonio employee and Tricentennial CEO Edward Benavides resigned his position on Nov. 13.

Centro San Antonio CEO Pat DiGiovanni, the City’s former deputy city manager, faced a different loss in confidence that led to his resignation on Nov. 28: a staff accountant in concert with at least one other individual outside Centro, and perhaps others, embezzled $175,000 over a two-year period without being detected by DiGiovanni or her direct boss, Centro’s COO/CFO Tony Piazzi.

The November resignations of the two high -profile nonprofit leaders offer an interesting juxtaposition.

Benavides was directly responsible for the events that led to his downfall, while Centro Board Chair Don Frost has gone out of his way to exonerate DiGiovanni of any involvement in or knowledge of the theft of funds. Both leaders, however, needed to step down so their organizations can regroup and move forward, according to people close to the two situations.

It won’t be easy in either instance.

Benavides has kept his salary and has been promised a new position at City Hall, so his resignation is really more akin to a reassignment. Benavides is valued by City Manager Sheryl Sculley, whom he previously served as chief of staff, but it’s hard to imagine how he can be effective as a leader in city government after the poor judgment that led to KSAT-TV’s exclusive contract. The deal pushed out WOAI-TV, which had televised the annual New Year’s Eve festivities at no charge for years, an event that benefitted the San Antonio Parks Foundation.

Will a cash-strapped Tricentennial Commission be able to keep its promise to make the Parks Foundation whole on its lost revenue, which in past years has ranged between $50,000 and $75,000? That’s one question without an immediate answer.

Tricentennial Commission Interim Executive Director Carlos Contreras, III, speaks to city council about the future of the Tricentennial.
Carlos Contreras, Tricentennial Commission interim chief executive officer, speaks to Council members. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

It’s equally hard to justify Benavides sitting on the sidelines earning a six-figure salary at taxpayer expense. Assistant City Manager Carlos Contreras has taken on acting Tricentennial CEO duties, but probably is eager to see the job filled with a permanent replacement. It will not be easy to find the right candidate less than one month from the start of the Tricentennial calendar of events on Dec. 31.

Yet the no-bid contract between the nonprofit Tricentennial Commission and KSAT-TV is not a contract with the City, so it is probably binding. Nonprofits do not have to seek competitive bids, even if it would have been prudent and ethical to do so. People will have to live with it.

DiGiovanni’s resignation is curious in that Piazzi was not asked to resign. How did the executive with direct oversight of the now former employee survive the house cleaning while his boss took the fall?

The answer to that might become more apparent in the coming weeks. A criminal investigation is underway, which all but guarantees more headlines in the coming months as prosecutors proceed. In most such instances, little or no money is recovered. Investigators inevitably uncover one or more culpable individuals with financial problems that led to the theft.

Crisis creates opportunity for change. Both organizations should embrace it. Mayor Ron Nirenberg already has pledged more transparency at the Tricentennial Commission. Contreras is highly regarded and will be a steadying hand. Public confidence can be rebuilt quickly with new leadership acting openly and fairly.

One suggestion for both nonprofit boards: hire executive directors, not CEOs. Title inflation has become increasingly common at small nonprofits. Executive directors cost less. Voters and donors like seeing more modest pay in the public and nonprofit sectors.

Another suggestion: hire promising young leaders with new ideas and proven experience. There are too many young professionals in San Antonio ready to lead who are idling in second and third-tier jobs. That’s how cities lose good people to opportunities found elsewhere.

The faster the two boards deal with leadership and operational issues at both organizations, the sooner we can get on with the important business of city building and, yes, the big New Year’s Eve party.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.