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Steve Bailey | Downtown

Menino's A-game

Email|Print| Text size + By Steve Bailey
November 30, 2007

Six years later, and well north of a half-million dollars in legal fees, Doug Johnson has won a judgment, such as it is, against our stubborn mayor. A judge this month awarded Johnson exactly $101 in his long, bitter feud with the City of Boston and Tom Menino over who will run the city-owned Franklin Park golf course. That $101 will almost pay for two rounds at the handsome William J. Devine Golf Course, the only way Johnson is likely to see the city course until our Mayor for Life decides to call it a day.

Johnson, whose company operates a half-dozen Massachusetts courses, has learned what others have before him: Tom Menino is not a man to be trifled with. Are you paying attention Bernie Margolis, our soon-to-be unemployed president of the Boston Public Library?

"Does this give every city or town that puts out a bid the right to do whatever they want? To cheat? To steal? To lie?" Johnson fumed to me on the phone yesterday. "Even if you get convicted, there are no consequences? There are no consequences for a city or town that rigs a bid?"

Said the mayor simply: "The judge acted wisely."

By all accounts, Menino is a brutal golfer. My friend Brian McGrory once put it this way after a day on the Franklin Park course with the mayor: "Menino's worst speech is better than his best day of golf." But when it comes to the gritty inside game of running his city, Menino is without peer. Underrate him, anger him at your peril.

Johnson has spent a lot of money finding this out. His company, Johnson Golf Management, ran the other city-owned course, George Wright in Hyde Park, and when the Franklin Park contract came up for renewal in 2002 Johnson outbid the incumbent operator by $450,000 over three years. The city, however, awarded the contract to another operator, saying it provided better service. Johnson sued.

When the Hyde Park contract came up for renewal the next year, Johnson again outbid the competition. When the city awarded the contract to Johnson's competitor, a judge ordered the city to rebid the deal. Instead, the city decided to manage both courses itself. Jeff Conley, who heads the watchdog Boston Finance Commission, says both courses are in good shape under the city's management. "Are they making money? No," he says. The city won't say what it spent in legal fees fighting Johnson.

Johnson, who has never met Menino, says he got shut out because he angered "the Hyde Park crowd" - the mayor's friends - who he says felt they owned the place. He says it started when Ed Jesser, a close Menino confidante, parked his blue Jaguar in a fire lane and wouldn't move it. Things went downhill from there, he says. Says Menino of Johnson: "The guy has a history of running down golf courses and suing to get more money."

Last year, after a two-week trial, a jury ruled for Johnson, saying the city had shown favoritism in awarding the contract. Johnson sought more than $1 million in lost profits; this month Judge John C. Cratsley awarded Johnson the $101, ruling he had failed to make the case for lost profits. Johnson, furious, is appealing and has also sued over the loss of the Hyde Park contract.

Boston is not Beverly, Johnson has learned. A decade ago Johnson sued Beverly in a similar dispute over the awarding of a contract for its city-owned course. The city eventually agreed to pay Johnson $750,000 and awarded him a contract to manage the course. The dispute helped unseat the mayor in the next city election.

Being Mayor for Life means never having to settle.

Steve Bailey is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at bailey@globe.com or at 617-929-2902.

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