Coach Mike debacle a 'teaching moment'
Contracts • Salt Lake City procurement process deaf to supporters of tennis facility.
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A collision of values at Salt Lake City Hall last week left many shaking their heads after their sense of community was smashed by a process designed to keep government free of cronyism.

The victims of the train wreck were Mike Martines and the community built around Coach Mike's Tennis Academy.

About 100 residents went before the City Council on Tuesday to fight for Martines, who is affectionately known as Coach Mike.

For the past 15 years, Martines has toiled at the Dee Smith Tennis Center, 1216 Wasatch Drive, building Coach Mike's Tennis Academy. He has raised about $500,000 in private money to spruce up the city-owned facility, including the purchase of a bubble that allows for year-round play.

According to those gathered at City Hall, he did more than transform forsaken courts into a gem of a tennis center. He built a community of folks who see Coach Mike's Academy as a focal point of their lives and those of their children, they said.

But soon, Martines could be out of a job and the tennis center he has built could be operated by someone else. Salt Lake City, through its procurement process ­— which apparently didn't take into account such things as facility improvements and community building — has selected another vendor to operate the Dee Smith Center, as well as the tennis facility at Liberty Park.

Martines has filed a protest against the decision, claiming the selection committee and process were flawed. The municipality will evaluate the protest before moving forward on negotiations with a new contractor.

It's sad and ironic, according to City Councilman Charlie Luke, who represents the area around Coach Mike's Academy, because the city and its redevelopment agency spend tens of millions each year on projects that seek to strengthen residents' sense of community.

That not withstanding, state and city government have endeavored over the past half century to follow proper procurement policies and not simply dole out contracts to friends and supporters.

Rick Graham, the director of Public Services, attempted to explain to the riled audience at City Hall that the procurement procedure by which vendor contracts are awarded not only is not transparent, but is secretive by law.

It would be illegal for the mayor or the City Council to interfere with the procurement process while it is ongoing.

The city's request for proposal (RFP) calling for bids is public information. But the bids from various entities are secret to ensure that the process is free from fixes. Once a contract is signed, however, all the information becomes public.

In a prepared statement, Graham said the management of Liberty Park and Dee Smith tennis was being combined as a cost-saving measure.

The selection committee took into account evaluation criteria including years of experience in the tennis industry, willingness to pay rent or share revenue and willingness to assume facility maintenance.

That, however, did little to quell the unrest among those gathered at City Hall who want to keep their tennis community intact and let Martines continue operating the program he built.

"It puts the City Council in a tough spot," Luke said. "We have a lot of the same questions [the public has], but we don't have access to the bid information, either."

The incident illustrates why the city should not let contracts for such community venues be handled in the same way it would hire an asphalt contractor, he added.

"We have to get the community involved before we put out an RFP," he said. "When you're contracting a community-type service, it only makes sense to take the pulse of the community you're trying to serve."

Martines said in an interview he didn't want to operate two tennis centers but was forced to bid on the joint contract when the Public Services Department determined Liberty Park would be combined with Dee Smith.

"They turned the decision over to the bureaucrats," Martines said.

When the veteran tennis coach took the reins at the Dee Smith Center in the late '90s, there were no other takers for the rundown facility. "I've never bid for this place," Martines said. "They always renewed my contract."

The office of Mayor Ralph Becker has been inundated with emails and phone calls regarding Coach Mike's Academy, said spokesman Art Raymond.

"All the negative feelings let us know we have to rethink things," Raymond said. "It's a teaching moment for us. We're looking at how we could have done this better."

csmart@sltrib.com