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Costa Mesa Councilmember Don Harper Calls into Question Transparency in Selection Process for Tennis Center Operators

Transparency Concerns Raised as City Council Navigates Selection of New Tennis Center Operator.

Costa Mesa held a July 18 city council meeting at which the city’s management staff made its recommendation for a permanent operator for the Costa Mesa Tennis Center, yet the transparency was called into question by Councilman Don Harper who raised several questions on the matter and challenged the process.

The Costa Mesa Tennis Center is a two-acre public facility owned by the city. It has 12 lighted courts, a courtyard, a pro shop, and generates an estimated $1 million in revenue annually.

Following the retirement of Hank Lloyd who operated the center for 24 years, Top Seed run by Syd Ball and his sons Cameron, Carsten and Christian, operated the center on an interim contract until the city could announce a Request for Proposal (RFP) in an open process for bids on operating the center. 

At the meeting Finance Director Carol Molina explained the evaluation process of all submitted bids involving a rubric of criteria that initially evaluated qualifications in terms of experience, personnel, service approach and cost. Nine proposals were then narrowed to three finalists based on weighted scores from this phase. Those were invited to the interview process to make their “last and best, final offer.”

Of the finalists, Agape Tennis Academy emerged with the highest weighted score and was recommended by the staff to the city council as the operator of choice. The Academy manages other centers in Oxnard and Fountain Valley. The second highest score was given to Hard Court Sports based in Costa Mesa while Top Seed, the current interim management team, came in third.

But if staff had any expectations that this was going to unfold in the usual manner, where staff makes the recommendation and the Costa Mesa City Council affirm the recommendation with their votes, those expectations were dashed when Councilmember Don Harper expressed his frustration with the information presented, on which he was supposed to make a decision.

Absent from the presentation and the information provided to the city council was the cost and cost-sharing proposal of each bid, and details from scoring categories.

“I want to point out that I asked for information about this process months ago, and our attorney told me I couldn’t have it, and there were two reasons: Because other councilmembers didn’t have it at the same time, which you could solve by giving it to everybody; and the second, there was confidential information, which you can redact, and I now have that information, but I get it 24 hours before the meeting” Harper told Molina.

Harper shared that he received the rubric criteria late and was yet to obtain information on proposed costs.

Molina explained that information on cost wasn’t provided until the council had elected an operator by vote, and the city had negotiated a contract. This was the policy for the maintenance of confidentiality and ensuring fairness without interference.

“I’ve sat on twelve boards in my lifetime, private and public and I’ve never seen someone come to me as a board member and say ‘Here’s a few pieces of information and we’re picking these guys, and then we’re going to go negotiate later, term and rate and fees and please approve it,” Harper said.

City Attorney Kimberly Barlow clarified the view that if costs are released during the evaluation phase it puts the city at a great disadvantage no matter which proposal is under consideration. 

“Staff has evaluated the cost proposals in making its recommendation but if we were to release all that information up front, it disadvantages the city in negotiating the best contract with whichever provider you select. And that’s a typical and normal part of our process when we are selecting someone on the basis of qualifications, and then negotiating a price,” Barlow explained.

Harper wasn’t convinced, pointing out that if the party knew they were already selected and they were the only ones now negotiating, that process does not give the city an advantage either, suggesting instead that negotiations should have been done with all the finalists to arrive at the best deal.

In the end, over 80 members of the community voiced their support for Top Seed who had continued to operate the tennis center with community in mind. The marathon meeting lasted until 11 o’clock at night. 

Council Member Loren Gameros brought a motion to enter negotiations with Top Seed as the operator, having heard from residents on the impact of the Ball family, on their lives and community.

“I believe the constituents have spoken, and we’re here to serve the constituency, not only of this community, but in the interest of what is happening at the Tennis Center,” Gameros stated.

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