Greater Houston Partnership to end public contracts to avoid information requests

By Mark Collette and Mike Morris
Houston Chronicle
Originally published Dec. 4, 2014

Greater Houston Partnership will terminate contracts with Houston, Harris County and surrounding governments, worth about $1 million per year, to avoid fulfilling public information requests, county and GHP officials said Thursday.

GHP President Bob Harvey said the group is terminating the deals “in part due to the misperception that we are somehow beholden to the government agencies by virtue of these contracts.”

Recent court rulings forced GHP’s hand, he said in an email.

“As a chamber of commerce representing the business community of Houston and as the regional economic development organization, we must be able to conduct our business with outside parties in a confidential fashion,” Harvey said.

GHP does economic development studies, identifies business opportunities, markets and lobbies for the city, promotes the airports internationally, operates business retention and expansion programs, coordinates business recruiting trips for city officials and even executes mayoral itineraries on those trips. The partnership has been an integral part of Houston’s economic development strategy for at least 20 years.

Transparency issue

City and county officials suggested the relationship could continue with the governments as paying “members” of GHP – like more than 2,000 businesses in Greater Houston.

But the question would remain: How transparent should GHP be, since courts have ruled that the nonprofit association performs governmental functions at public expense?

County Commissioner Steve Radack sees the move to cancel contracts and “concoct” another plan as a way for the partnership to get taxpayers’ money and not have to tell anyone how they spend it.

“I think that’s insulting,” he said.

The court case stemmed from a 2007 Public Information Act request from Montgomery County watchdog Jim Jenkins. He asked to see GHP check registers. The Texas attorney general, a district court and an appellate court agreed the registers are public. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case, upholding those rulings. GHP is still challenging, and seven years later, Jenkins is still waiting.

“I want the counties to develop,” Jenkins said. “But we don’t need these entities which are running under the radar taking taxpayers’ money and giving special benefits to the businesses that they want.”

Relationship murky

It’s not clear what, in the absence of a contract, would become of the services GHP provides local governments. Harvey said GHP will “continue to work alongside the city, county and other partners” to champion the local business climate. The $1 million in contracts comprise a small percentage of GHP revenues, he noted.

David Turkel, who oversees economic programs for Harris County, said a GHP staffer assured him they will be working together, but it wasn’t clear how.

Houston City Attorney David Feldman said there is no way the city can keep receiving the same level of service unless GHP complies with the Public Information Act.

“Obviously the city is going to have to look for an alternative,” he said.

Andy Icken, Houston’s chief development officer, said he has already begun to explore those alternatives.

“We obviously didn’t contract for things we thought were unimportant,” he said.

But in a prepared statement, Mayor Annise Parker seemed to play down the importance of the contract, noting its termination will have cost savings for the city and other groups can help fill the void.

“We have already made a number of modifications in outreach, marketing and convention infrastructure through the merger of Houston First and the Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau,” Parker said.

Houston First, created in 2011, operates the George R. Brown Convention Center and other city-owned buildings, parks and plazas. It also manages lease agreements for Toyota Center, the Hobby Center, Bayou Place and the Downtown Aquarium and controls more than 8,000 affiliated parking spaces.

Visitors bureau

Its board members are appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council. It provided the visitors bureau with approximately $21 million of its $23 million budget before the merger. The county put in $650,000.

Attorney Paul Watler, an expert on the Public Information Act, said GHP might still be subject to the act depending on its new relationship with the governments.

It “may not be as simple as setting aside a contract,” he said.