The Big Fix: River Barges and Runoffs Make for Ugly Politics

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Go Rio team led by Hope Andrade and Lisa Wong in partnership with Landry's Inc.

Scott Ball / Rivard report

The Go Rio team is led by Hope Andrade (center) and Lisa Wong (second from right) in partnership with Landry's Inc.

You might never take a ride on one of the barges plying the narrow confines of the San Antonio River, but as a taxpayer and voter you should care about the 10-year, $100 million contract that is now up for grabs. The River Walk tourist concession is quite a lucrative one with a long history of backroom politics deciding the outcome.

Nothing has changed in that regard in this so-called City on the Rise. The wheeling and dealing has only been amplified by the political moment as Mayor Ivy Taylor and Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) head into a June 10 runoff election, along with two incumbent council members.

That’s why every San Antonio resident ought to watch as Taylor and City Council cast their votes Thursday to award the contract. In all likelihood, it will be a mere formality, with the fix already in to award the deal to Go Rio San Antonio, whose members have only modest credentials to claim the business.

Go Rio is a partnership of Houston-based Landry’s Restaurants, VIA Metropolitan Transit Chair Hope Andrade, and Lisa Wong, owner of multiple Tex-Mex restaurants, including Rosario’s and Acenar. Landry’s operates one dinner cruise boat, one speed boat, and two shuttle boats in Kemah near Galveston.

Entertainment Cruises of Chicago, doing business here as San Antonio River Cruises, is the bidder recommended not once, but twice by City staff. The company operates a fleet of 36 cruises ships and boats in 10 U.S. cities and is owned by the Pritzker family, regularly ranked as one of the most philanthropic families in the country. If City Council decided to follow staff’s recommendation and Entertainment Cruises were to win the contract, its executives promised to join forces with True Flavors owner Johnny Hernandez.

Landry’s serves 300,000 customers annually, counting its shuttle boats, while Entertainment Cruises serves 1.9 million. What the Go Rio group lacks in river barge experience, however, is more than made up in political pull. 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.

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.

The highly unusual second review was scheduled after Taylor cried foul when former Mayor Phil Hardberger, representing Entertainment Cruises, spoke during that bidder’s presentation to City staff and a citizens committee. Other attorneys representing other bidders did not speak. The assumption was that Hardberger’s popularity as a former mayor tilted the review in his client’s favor when he was actually serving as an unregistered lobbyist.

That’s a debatable, but fair argument to make. The fact that Hardberger’s client is a nationally regarded cruise business and Go Rio’s principals are not even in the cruise business seems like a far more important point of differentiation.

Go Rio is hardly at a disadvantage inside City Hall. The group is represented by San Antonio attorney Frank Burney, and most City Hall observers would say he is a far more experienced and effective lobbyist than Hardberger.

The San Antonio River Cruises team.

Scott Ball / Rivard report

The San Antonio River Cruises team.

Taylor’s call for a second review gave the three also-ran teams a chance to regroup, shuffle their qualifications on paper, and create an avenue to win political support at City Council, support that they were not winning on the merits with staff and a citizens committee.

The reset also gave a fifth entity the opportunity to jump in and bid. Even conceding the unfairness of Hardberger speaking, the fact is the second staff and citizen review also favored San Antonio River Cruises by an overwhelming margin until questionable points for minority and local ownership were tacked on.

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. As the current VIA chair, her involvement is a clear conflict of interest. The new barge contract requires the service to also operate as a river taxi and new transit option for locals. How can the chairwoman of the city’s transit agency operate a for-profit transit business using City-owned boats?

Moreover, who believes Andrade and Wong will run the company when Landry’s, the owner of more than 500 restaurants, casinos, and the Galveston boats, will be involved? Clearly, the Houston company is the main player, a non-minority, non-local bidder.

Awarding Andrade and Wong points under the Small Business Economic Development Advocacy Program (SBEDA) belies the original intent of the ordinance. Wong told City Council that together she and Andrade have a “combined net worth in excess of $30 million.” That might not land them on the Forbes 400 list, but in this city that makes them wealthy beyond the imagination of most citizens. I don’t begrudge them their hard-earned wealth, but please don’t tell me they are the victims of economic discrimination and deserve special consideration.

Hernandez, the wildly successful restaurant operator and chef who is part of the Entertainment Cruises team, is another example of a local, self-made entrepreneur who deserves a lot of credit for what he has built, yet needs no special hand up in life at this point.

The original intent of the SBEDA ordinance was to level the playing field at City Hall for disadvantaged minority contractors who seldom won a fair hearing when competing for contracts. In this instance, the two entities should have been judged equally. There is nothing disadvantaged about any of the local partners, and Landry’s is no more local than the Pritzkers.

See below to review the first round scoring of the four bidders and the second round of scoring of the five bidders.

The process has made a mockery of local government transparency. If you want to see how San Antonio would operate under a strong mayor system, this past week offers a clear picture and it is not a pretty one.

Both of the top two finishers were allowed to make 20-minute presentations to City Council on Wednesday. Two Chicago-based executives and Hardberger spoke for Entertainment Cruises, while Andrade, Wong, and two Landry’s executives spoke for Go Rio.

It was clear as Taylor and council members quizzed senior City staff members afterwards that Taylor and a clear majority had decided to support Go Rio. The mayor sat stone-faced as Hardberger addressed her and council members, warning them, “You are the stewards of our river. You will decide the future of our river and our city…The entire city of San Antonio is watching this vote.”

It was a lecture Taylor and a council majority did not care to hear or heed.

Mayor Ivy Taylor.

Scott Ball / Rivard report

Mayor Ivy Taylor.

When Assistant City Manager Carlos Contreras attempted to respond to Taylor at one point by referencing the first staff review, the mayor snapped at him, demanding that he stop referring to the first review.

Like Taylor, City Councilman Alan Warrick II (D2) also faces a tight runoff election. He proceeded to try to trap Contreras and other city staff with questions that implied their recommendation did not recognize the need to rectify a record of racism in the city’s history of awarding contracts. No one would dispute that history, but it was ludicrous to try to pin the blame on current City staff or suggest that Warrick and others were finally delivering disadvantaged minority citizens a fair shake.

Several citizens who served on the bid review committee spoke with me in the days following the Wednesday council B session, expressing frustration, and in some cases, anger that their work was being ignored as elected officials vied for votes in the June 10 runoff.

San Antonio operates under a city manager form of government, and despite a tense, sometimes hostile mood in the packed meeting room Wednesday, City Manager Sheryl Sculley and her team stuck to their guns and told the mayor and council members at a special presentation of the two top bidders on Wednesday that staff continued to recommend Entertainment Cruises, even if it had slipped into second place by a single point.

The elephant in the room was the close proximity of Taylor and Nirenberg, separated by a few seats at the table and about 5,000 votes in the city’s May 6 voting. It was evident Wednesday that Taylor has a majority willing to follow her in awarding the contract to Go Rio, and that Nirenberg is in the minority.

Taylor and her campaign team seem less confident that a majority of voters will follow her in the June 10 runoff. Taylor won 42% of the vote to Nirenberg’s 37%, an outcome many did not expect, and it was quickly followed by Taylor’s hiring of political consultant Colin Strother while Christian Anderson remained in the role as campaign manager.

Last week the Taylor campaign launched the LiberalRon.com website and openly took credit for the attempt to ridicule Nirenberg and his service on City Council, painting him as a partisan do-nothing in a nonpartisan election, disparaging his endorsement by former Mayor Julián Castro and others.

It put Taylor at odds with both Hardberger and Castro, her two predecessors in the office, both of whom won multiple terms by comfortable margins and are regarded as having been highly effective in propelling the city forward.

The LiberalRon.com website was accompanied by anti-Nirenberg robocalls, which a number of voters condemned in calls to the media. One former councilwoman described the call as a disinformation campaign in a message to the Rivard Report. Strother disagreed when questioned by an Express-News columnist, but no one I’ve spoken with who received the call agrees with him.

None of these developments seem consistent with the quiet, confident “I am not a politician” profile that Taylor has long sought to project. The tactics are those of an underdog, one bent on turning the city’s nonpartisan city election into a partisan brawl.

It was a week of ugly politics in San Antonio. This week promises more of the same, which suggests City Council cannot be trusted to award major contracts during election season.

17 thoughts on “The Big Fix: River Barges and Runoffs Make for Ugly Politics

  1. Taylor is proving she is good at dirty politics in multiple ways. It’s too bad. Whether she wins or loses in the mayoral election, she has blown her chance to be respected by most of the city the way most of our former mayors are.

  2. I proudly voted for Ron and will do so again on the first day of early voting in the runoff! Taylor lost my respect in two big ways. One, the way in which she treats my LGBTQ community and two, the way in which she looks at my community of non believers! I think she sees the writing on the wall and we about to elect a man with integrity and acceptance of all San Antonio’s community!

  3. If it was not for the election, Ron Nirenberg would be voting with the Mayor or what ever side was in the majority. Look at the Uber and Lyft sweetheart contract. The majority including Ron voted for sweetheart contracts with little to no regulation. Public safety went out the window to accommodate two multi billion dollars irresponsible out of town corporation’s.

    Sorry but Ron is just as bad of taking care of care of politics as usual at City Hall. Remember one thing, it not about doing right for small business, local citizens, or our city. It about taking care of the city’s power broker, lobbyist, and then staying in power to take care of future deals.

    No side is better then the other and ones the elections are over, they will all kiss up and make up regardless what sides wins.

    As far as the communities need. We will continue to get the leftovers and Southcross Ave, Guadalupe St, Nogilitos St. Somerset Rd., E. Commence St. and so many major street in our neighborhoods will remain the same as they have been for decades.

  4. Not surprising that the mentioned players participate in back alley politics. Taylor, Andrade, & Wong have all manipulated their way to the top. This is not news. However, it is refreshing that the Rivard Report isn’t afraid of reporting it, unlike the other unnamed & useless paper. As a parent with daughters, these are not the kind of women I want my girls to emulate.

    The bigger concern isn’t that Andrade & Wong are inexperienced; it’s that they would use the contract to further their own personal agenda, close down competing businesses, and make themselves richer on the backs of San Antonio citizens (never mind the tourists). If you don’t believe this, try finding some of the small business owners in King William/South Town who closed down over the years thanks to underhanded tactics by Wong. Andrade’s & Taylor’s dirty tactics have been a little more public.

    The irony is that the competing company is from Chicago, and Chicago’s City planner had no qualms about trashing San Antonio publicly last week. Sooooo…

    Either way, let’s get some honesty back in the mayor’s office. I know who I’m supporting & it ain’t the sitting mayor.

  5. Look community everyone needs to look at Taylor from the get go! She got where she is by a promise of not running for mayor. She lied. We the newspaper readers, not politicians, took that to heart. SHE LIED! She hides as “born again Christian” and does dirty dancing with our city’s favorite river barges! I want a new mayor, Ron will make a better mayor! He is for all, community at large! VOTE RON!

  6. The “modest credentials” you mention of Go Rio were enough to award the most points based on the scoring process.

    You can’t blame Go Rio for the scoring system….obviously everyone puts their best foot forward given the scoring criteria.

    Taylor did the right thing in requesting a second sunmittal. Funny how some of those people so concerned with transparancy in government decide they don’t like when it doesn’t fit their story.

    Speaking of transparency, Hardberger led the political side of getting the land bridge included in the streets and drain bond as well as the parks bond. He brags about how the critics have been silenced with the success of the vote. Pork barreling the project next to pot holes and street repair is the ultimate example of lack of transparency.

  7. The Chicago/Hardberger group is so stupid. Don’t they know that in a big, diversity like San Antonio y0u please the local minority cover points game. They didn’t have Johnny Hernandez as part of their written and only added him because they discovered the local points system too late. For Hardberger to not know this fact makes him either aloof or too old and out of touch with reality. i don’t like watching city council B sessions and Hardewrber sitting right behind a council member whjispering in his ear. When will he and Wolff realize they are not Mayors anymore and move on! The Chicago video presentation was out of touch with SA and instead was a generic presentation that I thought did not have a single Hispanic in it but was a Black/White Ken Burns type of show ……and did not learn from Burns’ big mistake!

  8. There is a movement afoot that want the current “lame duck” council to table this decision until after the runoff elections are finished. I tend to agree with this idea. It’s pretty brassy for these folks to be making serious decisions like this (not to mention the Alamo Plaza debacle) when it’s possible they will soon be voted out of office. Or, in one case, already voted out. It’s like they don’t care about the voice of the people. But that’s what happens when they become too inward-looking. (There is a cruder term for what they are doing, but I will refrain from using it here…)

  9. Every statement I have heard from Taylor involves flip-flopping and requiring more time on decision making. She’s had enough time and still hasn’t pulled the trigger on the city’s most important discussions. We need her out.

  10. How about keeping this a local enterprise and not contract out this concession at all? Doesn’t the City actually own the barges? Why let an external business use City-owned property to make a profit for interests based outside of San Antonio?

  11. Everyone that threw their hats into the ring for consideration should have known the rules they were playing by. If they chose not to read them or adjust their strategy to get them, then maybe they are not savvy enough to represent anything to or for San Antonio. I, like Hope, love our city and think that us local yokels tend to know better than anyone how to do San Antonio. I expect the Go Rio team will run the barges with the same level of excellence they run their other San Antonio businesses. Go Rio!

  12. If this passes, I will be changing my vote from my original vote for Taylor and Treviño to Nirenberg and Montaño. I was already leaning that way, but this would solidify it. Such blatant corruption and manipulation should not be condoned.

  13. Or they could just give the contract back to the Lyons family who created and ran the original barges successfully for many years before having the business that they built handed over to someone else. That seems like the fair thing to do. . After all, they were the ones who had the original idea anyway.

    But since when does fairness come into play in the nasty world of politics? Especially in San Antonio.

  14. Remember, all sides are getting something for their city council support. It is a pay for play environment at City Hall.

    The city staff recommending the group that is paying the city three million dollars less per year does not make sense. Three million dollars a year can go along way in repairing sidewalks, or streets in our city.

    Furthermore how difficult can it be to hire a bunch of kids and locals to operate these barges and sell tickets? I am certain who ever wins the contract has plans of hiring the current barge employees. They may be new uniforms and new training on how to operate the new barges, other then that the new operator is taking over an existing operation operating and pretty much on cruise control.

  15. Any civil servant (government “employee” or government entity board member) could have conflict of interest when he or she is associated with a business that has similar services as the government entity. To build trust in the government entities in San Antonio, such as VIA Bus Transit and especially the City of San Antonio, government employees and board members of government entities should try not to start a business that provides a service similar to the service provided by the government entity. River barges along the San Antonio River could provide transportation in the future.

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