Wednesday, January 4, 2012

City Council approves airport vendor contracts

Posted By on Wed, Jan 4, 2012 at 2:17 AM

After more than seven hours of heated debate, legislative confusion, and even some unexpected drama, the Atlanta City Council voted 12-3 to award multi-billion contracts to 150 restaurants and retail shops wanting to move into Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and its new international terminal.

The proposals, which include such local eateries such as The Varsity, Varasano's Pizzeria, TWIST, and undergarment powerhouse Spanx (yes!), will fill nearly all existing and new retail and food and beverage spaces at the world's busiest airport. (Ludacris announced on Twitter shortly after the city approved the contracts that he's behind the quizzical Chicken n' Beer concept.)

Councilmembers including Yolanda Adrean pushed today for what amounted to a long work session during which airport and procurement officials answered general questions about the vendor selection process. The move aimed to answer calls from some citizens and watchdog groups such as Common Cause of Georgia and the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation which, over recent months, have expressed concerns about a lack of transparency in the procurement program.

When councilmembers' questions ventured too close for legal comfort — several vendors have apparently already filed protests against the city with more sure to follow — City Attorney Cathy Hampton warned they were getting "too deep in the weeds" and recommended discussing the topics during an executive session.

Mayor Kasim Reed stressed just before adjournment for dinner that Council's OK was vital. He said any delay could cost the airport millions of dollars in lost rent and concession revenue and endanger the city's plan to repay bonds issued to build the $1.5 billion international concourse that officials hope to unveil in spring.

Reed then, much to the surprise of observers, blasted Common Cause. (Reed was expected to — but ultimately did not — deliver a blistering presentation replete with posters outlining why Common Cause's board members, some of whom had accepted political contributions during their own political campaigns, weren't qualified to throw stones.)

Council members Natalyn Archibong and Felicia A. Mooresaid they cast votes against the recommendations because they were dissatisfied with the process, which they said was rushed along by the mayor's administration.

"I thought a 'no' vote would get the message across to the administration," Archibong said. "We get lip service that we're respected but it feels like we're [considered] the entity that just needs to go along."

William Perry, Common Cause of Georgia executive director, said the evening's question and answer session was a good "appetizer" when it comes to transparency but that the group's still waiting for a "full meal." He said the organization never aimed to smear the mayor but thought more transparency was warranted during the process — not just after.

Reed, who returned approximately $20,000 in campaign contributions to airport vendors prior to the procurement program's launch in March, has maintained that the contracting process was the most transparent the city's ever conducted and free of any political meddling. He criticized press coverage of the multi-billion dollar contracting process widely considered the largest in United States history, saying that reporters "besmirched [his] name" by focusing on innuendo and unsubstantiated allegations. He said plans to follow through on his promise to release the name of the proposal evaluators "as quickly as [he's] able." Such a move is unprecedented in the airport's history, the mayor said.

You can also now expect the spurned vendors' lawsuits — at least one of which will probably request the transcript typed by the stenographer who sat just a few seats away from Reed in the front row of Council chambers. (First time I've seen that one.) The Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation reportedly also plans to file a lawsuit against the city over the contracting process, which President John Sherman claimed during today's public comment violated the Open Meetings Act.

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