Summary of the recent events surrounding the East County Performing Arts Center
Perceptions of Raymond Lutz at the end of 2005.
The City of El Cajon had a contract with the (secular 501c3) Arts Center Foundation (ACF) to operate the East County Performing Arts Center (ECPAC) theater, starting in 1997 and continuing until termination in June of 2005. I followed this carefully, as I am the President of the Grossmont Community Concert Association (GCCA) which has been producing community concerts in the East county since 1947, and was instrumental in the original creation of the theater.
Long ago, the City made a verbal agreement with the ACF to make capital improvements to the theater utilizing a loan from the City, which would later be forgiven so that the City could avoid the lengthy bidding process, unions, etc. A big problem, which I agree with, is that ACF was not operating independently, as they would produce bills, and the City would pay those bills, for reimbursement by the ACF later. The city provided a subsidy to the ACF for their operations, just like every other performing arts theater. Several years ago, the City stopped the $350K annual subsidy to the theater. Of course, when the subsidy was stopped, the idea of forgiving the capital loan was forgotten as well. Eventually, the ACF was 2.5 million behind paying the City. This was not really a loss by the City as they had already paid the bills. However, it gave the City an excuse to terminate the contract with ACF instead of working out a new working relationship or trying to fix the management problem.
The City council decided to put together a blue-ribbon commission to review the details of the relationship with the ACF and decide what to do. Mayor Mark Lewis came in with a predetermined list of people to serve on the Blue Ribbon commission, all people who were involved in the City, three were developers, one a Tupperware distributor, and one a plastic firm manager. They all were probably the Mayor's big campaign contributors, but no one with any theater experience. Council member Ramos requested that each council member be able to appoint a member, but that was declined. The BRC went forward and allowed public participation (I was one of the few outsiders that attended all those meetings) but in the end, they suppressed participation in their final report. The report made some suggestions, and one was to terminate the agreement with the ACF go out for an RFP. In the meantime, the theater would be managed by the City rec. dept.
The ACF made a proposal at that meeting, $365K final subsidy from the City and forgive the debt on the books, and they would be on their own. This was turned down. The City voted to go out for an RFP. Council Member Mc Clellen
told me privately that several organization were ready to bid on it, including the Christian Community Theater (CCT).
There was a “Stakeholders Meeting” held by the City in July to gather input from the community. There were about 30 people there. It was one of those “put everything on the table” meetings to make the community feel good.
At the start of September, the RFQ (request for qualifications) was distributed, they say to 19 recipients. I did not receive one, and the chair of the ACF did not either. I had to go to the City to get a copy. The RFQ was only 7 pages in length, mostly containing information about the theater (number of microphones, seats, drapes, etc.) but really nothing in the way of business points that would be useful to an organization in generating a proposal, particularly if they were not intimately involved in the process. A $200,000 bond was a requirement. The City made the RFQ available on the web site, but only if you provided detailed contact information, including mandatory submission of Tax-Id or Social Security number. Then, the on-line request had to be approved by the city. I finally went into the City Manager's office to get a copy. They admitted that I was edited off the list, why, I'm still not sure. What is clear is that they edited down their list of recipients and made it difficult to get the RFQ.
In the end, all the small measures of bias by the City added up to an embarrassing result, only one submission, of course from the sweetheart, the CCT (DBA “Art Beat Management”). They proposed 350K per year plus $50K capital improvements for five years. This is far more than proposed by ACF when they were terminated, and only more clearly proves the bias of the City. I understand it is State Law and normal good business practice to obtain three competitive quotes in such a situation. The City decided at the 10/11/2005 meeting to go ahead and negotiate a contract with the CCT without having three bids. I have submitted a request to the City Manager's office for information on who they contacted and if they have standard procedures for conducting such an RFQ process.
The City of El Cajon now has four council members who are “in bed” with the powerful churches in this area, and wealthy development firms (Hamann Development, John Gibson, one of the BRC members) who heavily fund anything to do with getting the Christian influence into town. (Hamann is the firm that bought the commercial plaza behind City Hall and turned it into a Church, the same church that is attended by some of the council members!) They also fund the campaigns for these City Council members, except for Mc Clellen
, who pays for his own campaigns. Ramos is the only outsider on the council.
CCT ran the theater for one year or so, just prior to the establishment of ACF, and it declined in repair during that time. People complained about their ability to run the theater. The CCT over-used it for their own rehearsals, etc. without paying sufficiently. I expect the same this time.
NOW THE PUNCHLINE: With all that said, here is where we are today. First, I think the City is misbehaving in terms of how the are seeking competitive bids, and the fact that they didn't really try very hard to seek out other bidders. I'm sure companies might not wish to bid if they know that the City intends to give it to the CCT regardless of what the other bids might contain. The RFQ was vague, making it hard to submit a proposal unless you had inside information.
I am concerned that the CCT will munge the books together, making it difficult to audit the performance of the management group. It should be a separate nonprofit corp, with separate books.
I am concerned that the CCT will not be fair to other groups, religious or secular, that may wish to use the theater. Just like putting crosses on every hilltop, they wish to put the cross on the only large theater in town in the form of their name, Christian Community Theater, and by its actions in who it decides to rent to. Of course, they will have first pick of dates.
Don't get me wrong. I think the CCT does a great job of teaching kids about acting, and they do wonderful community events. But they are not the world-class theater management firm desired by the community. I'm sure they will be an important renter of the space of the theater, just as they are today. But it is wrong to give this public facility to an obviously religious organization.
Now, CCT has closed the box office completely (until just recently), requiring concertgoers to go back to their cars and drive to their Pioneer office. When you get there, you are overwhelmed with ads for CCT offerings but almost nothing about ECPAC. I asked Paul Russell why they closed the box office, and he explained that it was not cost-effective to have someone at the theater all day long. Later, I discovered that Melissa Hill works at the theater every day and could be summoned with a simple buzzer if they wanted to have the box office open for some time. I made this suggestion to Russell, but it didn't seem to get much traction.
Paul Russell is faced with a difficult ethical responsibility. With Hamann Sr. on the board of directors of CCT, with him working in the building owned by Hamann, there is certainly some allegiance to Hamann. CCT was one of the best customers of the original managers, the ACF. Now, he has to balance between just taking the money from the City for the benefit of his own operation or really using it for the benefit of the City.
From the example of the Box Office, it seems clear that Russell will tip the balance his way every time.
Indeed, CCT is doing almost nothing to schedule headliners into the theater, and it sits dark most of the time, except for the sold out performances by the Grossmont Community Concert Association and their own (CCT/CYT) performances. The city could have had a world-class theater, and they turned it over to their friends for support in the upcoming election. It is a disgrace, and an example of everything wrong with the culture of cronyism that pervades this city council. Mayor Mark Lewis must be replaced, and the other members of the council who supported these deeds should also be replaced. The only council member who stood up against the insanity was Dick Ramos.
-- Raymond Lutz
- 27 Oct 2006