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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Common Cause: Airport bids need more time for review (Updated)

Government watchdog group Common Cause is asking the city to slow down the ongoing process of awarding lucrative restaurant and retail contracts at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to allow the Atlanta City Council more time to review the proposals.

On Dec. 14, the city's top-secret team of evaluators released its list of recommended vendors for more than 120 retail and restaurant slots up for grabs at the world's busiest airport, including coveted spots in the new international terminal scheduled to open in the spring. The multi-billion dollar concessions program, considered one of the largest in U.S. history, attracted numerous proposals from celebrity chefs and well-known local restaurateurs eager to enjoy a captive audience at the bustling airport.

City Council is expected to vote on the proposed vendors — which include Varasano's Pizzeria, the Varsity, and TWIST, among other local eateries — on Jan. 3. But some political observers have complained that the process, in the works since March, hasn't been as transparent as they'd hoped — especially with the airport's unfortunate history of occasional corruption and insider deals.

In a statement issued this morning, Common Cause Georgia Executive Director William Perry says Mayor Kasim Reed backtracked on the promise his administration made months ago to reveal the names of evaluators who selected the potential vendors — most likely after realizing they'd be lobbied to death by bidders. (Reed has since said the names would be disclosed after the contracts have been awarded.)

The city also has declined to release detailed information about the proposals, citing exemptions in the Open Records Law. (CL tried to obtain a list of contractors who failed to comply with E-Verify requirements, causing the entire bidding process to begin anew, but was denied by the city. We filed a complaint with Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, which remains unresolved.)

Some Council members complained that they learned about the proposed winners just several hours before they were expected to vote. In addition, many of those who've been recommended spots in the airport have made campaign contributions to or worked on election efforts of the mayor and Council members. (Reed has said he played no role in the selection of potential retail and restaurant contractors.)

"We hope the selection of proposed contractors has been a fair and impartial process," Perry said in a statement. "Unfortunately, it has not been transparent enough for anyone to know if it has indeed been fair and impartial."

The group wants Council to delay voting on the proposals until Jan. 17 or Feb. 6 to give Council members more time to pore over the proposals and the public an opportunity to comment.

"We understand that there is a timeline for opening the international terminal," Perry said in the statement.
"However, contracts that are worth over $3 billion and covering a period of ten years certainly seem important enough to allow a few weeks for due diligence and public input."

Common Cause, which stresses they're not accusing the mayor or his administration's of corruption, has released a list of its concerns about the concessions program on its website. We left messages asking Council President Ceasar Mitchell if he'd be willing to support a delay, which airport officials have said could cost the airport millions of dollars in lost revenue. We'll update when we hear word.

UPDATE, 5:52 p.m.: Atlanta Airport General Manager Louis Miller says in a statement to CL:

“We believe that the City Council will have had ample opportunity to study and review the RFP process and recommendations of award in time for their January 3 vote. We will continue to make ourselves available to meet with any of the Council members and discuss any questions and concerns that they may have.”

An airport spokesman told CL in an email sent earlier today that delaying the awards could cause "significant problems" for the city. Among them: delays in opening the international terminal, which could cost the city as much as $5.1 million in lost terminal rents and concessions revenues per month. A delay could also throw a wrench in the city's plan to pay off bonds issued to build the terminal.

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