Call me naive, but I believe a good and honest public servant was smeared this week.
The smear job was undertaken by the San Antonio Express-News. Its target was Deputy City Manager Pat DiGiovanni. The Plaza de Armas news site piled on, too, never missing a chance to kick City Manager Cheryl Sculley and Mayor Julián Castro.
The Express-News published six stories and columns over the last eight days on its front page and Metro front (did I miss anything?), and held two editorial board meetings in which Sculley and DiGiovanni separately defended themselves, City staff and the bid review and contract-letting process. But there were mea culpas issued, too.
Mayor Julián Castro at City Council on Thursday acknowledged an appearance of a conflict of interest on DiGiovanni’s part while affirming the obvious: there was zero evidence of any real wrongdoing. Sculley and DiGiovanni issued their own statements of regret to the Express-News. Contradictory? Well, yes, but a media-generated firestorm usually dissipates only when the same media get the opportunity to declare victory and move on. So take the mea culpas not as guilty pleas, rather as cries of “uncle.”
I wish Castro and Sculley had done something else: called a press conference, stood shoulder to shoulder with DiGiovanni, and stared down the newspaper. I wish they had looked into the television cameras and told the people of San Antonio that taxpayers were well served in this instance, and that an outstanding San Antonio company, Zachry Construction Corp. and its partner, Hunt Construction Group of Phoenix, had been selected on the merits by competent City staff to oversee the coming expansion of the Convention Center, a key element in the redevelopment of HemisFair Park.
The mayor and city manager might have added that if a previous mayor and city council had made its decision on the merits, Zachry would have been chosen to build the convention center hotel, and the Grand Hyatt would have been built on time, on budget, and without the complications of a business bankruptcy.
Everyone wants to avoid even the appearance of conflict, but it’s not always possible. DiGiovanni could have recused himself from the bid review process, and in hindsight, some say he should have done so. Just as strong an argument can be made that the City’s best guy should have stayed in the game. What really matters is whether any actual evidence of wrongdoing is found, or if there is a pattern of such appearances of conflict. Neither is the case with DiGiovanni.
In the event you do not read the newspaper, here’s the background: The Express-News, in a Sept. 20 front page story by Metro Columnist Brian Chasnoff and City Hall Reporter Josh Baugh (two guys I respect and hired while editor there) reported that DiGiovanni was playing a key role in selecting Zachry for the convention center contract at the same time Zachry Construction President and CEO David Zachry was sitting on a selection committee interviewing DiGiovanni as a candidate to become CEO of Centro Partnership, a new private-public downtown development accelerator.
The indictment was clear: DiGiovanni ranked the Zachry bid at this top of his selection list and, in return, David Zachry used his influence to win DiGiovanni the new job. Quid pro quo. Later in the week, a Chasnoff column carried the headline, “Ethics violation orbits City Hall.” That, in my view, is a headline still awaiting a retraction. It’s not true. No ethics violation has been shown or determined. None is orbiting.
By week’s end, DiGiovanni had sent an eight-page letter to the City’s Ethics Review Board, requesting an “advisory opinion” on his conduct. The board is relatively inactive; its page on the City of San Antonio’s website indicates it has only issued 20 such opinions since its inception in 1999 and none since 2009.
Given a completely different cast of characters, something like what the newspaper alleges is at play here might very well have happened in the San Antonio of the 1980s and’ 90s. Back then, insider wheeling and dealing was rife at City Hall and some council members took kickbacks and extracted political favors for their votes, and certain influence peddlers and contractors gladly bought those votes. Three city council members were indicted and convicted of criminal wrongdoing during Mayor Ed Garza’s stint in office.
But not any more. A good government era was firmly established after Mayor Phil Hardberger took office and persuaded Sculley to leave Phoenix to become city manager here. DiGiovanni was city manager in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a job Sculley once held, when she recruited him to move here. DiGiovanni is a tough negotiator who has allowed Sculley to float above the fray and focus on the big picture. His tenure in the number two job coincided with the rebirth of the city’s central core and the arrival of Castro and his ambitious SA2020 agenda, which includes an idea first launched before Hardberger left office: the redevelopment of the underutilized HemisFair Park.
Digiovanni has run hard with the downtown ball ever since Sculley gave it to him. Like anyone in a leadership position, he has his detractors. He’s bruised some egos with his negotiating style, intimidated a few, and not given others exactly what they wanted, but he is widely respected as smart, hard-working, and honest. I served as emcee of this year’s Downtown Alliance Awards where DiGiovanni was selected as Downtowner of the Year. He was a popular choice.
Back to the convention center expansion contract and the supposed wrongdoing. As the City’s lead professional on downtown redevelopment, DiGiovanni served as the senior representative on the review panel that examined competing bids for the $300 million project.
Notice that I didn’t gratuitously add the word “lucrative” to that last sentence. Yes, $300 million is a lot of money, but the truth is companies will work for minimal profit just to win such a showcase project and keep their employee base intact during a recession or slow recovery like we are experiencing now. The very bidding process itself encourages construction managers to slice spending at every turn to remain competitive. I’ve been told of some public projects where the commercial brokers made more in commissions that the general contractor made building the project.
At the same time, DiGiovanni, it is no secret, has been a candidate for at least two big jobs locally: the vacant CEO position at Brooks City-Base and the newly created job as CEO of Centro Partnership, a recently created public-private partnership designed to foster core city development. It’s operated in its first year as part of the Downtown Alliance, but the intention is for Centro to stand alone.
DiGiovanni, were he willing to leave San Antonio, undoubtedly could ascend to a city manager position in a top 50 city. San Antonio enjoys a national reputation under Sculley and her team for fiscal discipline, strong management, and integrity and they work in one of the fastest growing metro areas in the country. But DiGiovanni is hooked on the city, soon to be remarried, and probably would find life and work almost anywhere else to be less interesting than here. His departure from City Hall for another opportunity in the city has been expected.
What surprised some is that he chose the Centro job. It’s a high risk move and a lateral one at that for a guy firmly established in his current job with a good salary and benefits package, including a city pension. Centro is a not-for-profit with an uncertain future. It has a little more than $500,000 in operating capital, and no chance of growing unless DiGiovanni can raise the millions it will take to build a real entity with muscle. In my view, DiGiovanni’s passion for downtown San Antonio and his desire to test himself as a leader have led him to take an admirable leap of faith.
That’s no quid pro quo.
Then there’s David Zachry and Zachry Corp. The Zachry family and its companies have built billions of dollars of projects around the world, but they generally fly below the radar. Bartell Zachry’s sons could probably walk into a lot of places in this city and not be recognized by anyone. I can’t think of a major international company that spends less time, energy and money on managing its image in the media. I also can’t think of a company with a more sterling reputation, one with decades of work on virtually every continent unsullied by any wrongdoing.
And that brings me to my concluding points here. Here at The Rivard Report, I openly advocate for the growth and progressive development of San Antonio, which by my definition means building a city that is more educated, innovative, prosperous and healthy, all in a built environment that makes San Antonio a place people don’t want to leave and others want to make their home.
That can’t happen without enlightened and honest civic and business leadership. Right now this city has both in spades. But other media find it all but impossible to recognize good leadership. Too many reporters see their job as only focusing on what is wrong rather than what is right.
That’s why, for example, CPS Energy CEO Doyle Beneby can make game-changing decisions that save hundreds of millions of dollars from being spent on the wrong project and be selected as one of the nation’s most innovative energy utility leaders, yet people here are fed sensational stories of how much money he spent on wine at a dinner. It’s easier to crucify someone for buying a $100 bottle of Cabernet than it is to acknowledge he is transforming CPS into a leading economic development force while building one of the most diversified energy portfolios in the nation.
Unfortunately, that gotcha approach to journalism undermines the public’s confidence in its leaders at a time when this city’s residents should be celebrating a good growth era. I know from my own many years in newsrooms that reporters write first and foremost for their peers. What others in the newsroom think of their work is paramount, and writing positively about someone or something risks snickers that you’re soft. Ironically, the same newsrooms that produce such bulldog reporters are also stocked with journalists who are incredibly thin-skinned when their own work or motives are challenged.
I’m sure to be reminded of that when the bullets start flying my way in response to this story. I don’t mind. I come under periodic snark attacks at Plaza de Armas already, and a little more from its Innuendo Desk won’t kill me. And long before I left the Express-News there were those in the building who thought I was too close to some of this city’s leaders. People can think what they want to think. I’ve been around long enough to know the good guys from the bad.
Pat DiGiovanni and David Zachry are two of the good guys.