Bush airport food sparks city battle

Mayor Bill White called the food service at Bush Intercontinental Airport's Terminal C inferior to that of other airports and said the fastest way to improve it was to extend the contract of the company that dishes it out.

White is asking City Council to extend the contract with JDDA Concession Management another eight years rather than go through a time-consuming and potentially nasty competitive bidding process. Council is set to vote on the controversial extension Wednesday.

But a public bid battle is exactly what should happen, said Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck, who has emerged as the mayor's chief rival in the current airport "food fight."

The controversy reveals how White's management style, with its stated focus on efficiency and consumer value, can conflict with those who see open government as necessarily messy at times.

"I think it's a terrible precedent," Clutterbuck said. "The way it is now, it begs the question of why do we bid any contract? To what other contracts will this process be applied?"

The contract holder, Jason Yoo, is a local businessman. In the past two years, Yoo or his relatives have donated at least $30,000 to the campaigns of eight council members. Donations to White totaling $11,260 go back to 2003.

Yoo would not comment Monday, except to say that he has been donating to politicians for at least a decade, "as a private citizen, as a community leader."

White needs eight votes to pass the contract extension. By Monday, six council members said they would support the extension: Michael Berry, Peter Brown, Adrian Garcia, Ron Green, Jarvis Johnson and Addie Wiseman. All but Garcia and Wiseman have taken campaign money from Yoo.

Five council members said they still were undecided: Carol Alvarado, Ada Edwards, M.J. Khan, Sue Lovell and Melissa Noriega. Toni Lawrence did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Khan and Lawrence received Yoo donations.

White said last week he was confident the extension would be approved.

Councilwoman Pam Holm, who opposes White's plan, may not be present for Wednesday's vote. And some observers have said Berry should recuse himself from the vote because his wife works for the firm that represents Yoo.

"I just urge anybody who's interested to contact their council members and express their opinion on this," Clutterbuck said.

The Terminal C food courts have pulled in an average of $18.5 million a year since 1999, airport officials said. Yoo's JDDA Concession Management, bought out the contract in 2005. JDDA receives a percentage of the revenues, as does the city.

The deal put forward by White requires JDDA to spend at least $10.5 million to renovate the food courts and to bring in a more experienced airport food management firm, Creative Host Services, for a 49 percent stake. It also would boost the city's share of concession revenues.

In a statement issued Monday, White said the contract extension was the fastest way to improve Terminal C's food service, which he said was worse than that at competing airports.

"Hard-nosed managers in the private and public sectors often tell vendors they must immediately offer better contract terms or face replacement later on," the mayor's statement said. "By removing contract extension as a tool for City negotiations, we would lose an effective tool for improving existing contracts."

The extension, White said, will bring improvements faster.

"The process was transparent. The contractor complied with tough demands," the statement said.