Ronnie Polaneczky: Philadelphia tour operator a victim of politics?

Jonathan Bari wants to know why he can't seem to market his business through the Independence Visitor Center.
Jonathan Bari wants to know why he can't seem to market his business through the Independence Visitor Center.
Posted: November 18, 2010

BACK IN AUGUST, Jonathan Bari asked Gov. Rendell for minutes, memos and documents related to board meetings at the Independence Visitor Center.

Since Rendell has a representative, William Graham IV, on the IVC board, Bari figured the records were public.

Rendell refused the request. So Bari appealed to the state's Office of Open Records, which determined in September that the documents should be released.

Bari hoped, after reviewing the paperwork, that he might finally learn why his business, the Constitutional Walking Tour, has for years been all but banned from marketing itself at the IVC.

Despite the Office of Open Records order, Bari has not received the records. In fact, the governor has filed a suit in Commonwealth Court to block their release. The suit alleges that the order was based on bad legal reasoning, and that it's disruptive and burdensome.

"I'd like to know what the governor is hiding," says Bari, 43, who has run the tour with his wife, Leslie, since 2003. "This is such a waste of taxpayer resources."

Rendell's spokesman, Gary Tuma, told me that Rendell has no connection to the IVC, that he merely "nominates" a member to the board.

He added that the member is not the governor's representative nor reports to Rendell. Because Rendell has no access to meeting documents, forcing Rendell to collect records from the IVC, then, would create a new policy not existing in law, Tuma reasoned.

I could go into numbing detail about all of that - including the fact that, contrary to Tuma's assertion, Rendell's lawsuit does, indeed, describe Graham as "the governor's representative."

But I won't. Because the bigger picture is more troubling than the slippery technicalities Rendell is hiding behind.

The IVC board is headed by attorney John Estey. Yep, that John Estey.

Rendell's former chief of staff. Current head of DRPA's patronage-addled board, where he represents Rendell. Partner at Rendell's old law firm, Ballard Spahr, which performs lucrative legal work for the IVC and DRPA. Chief player in the effort to secure funding from Rendell for a new Family Court building in Philly.

Basically, you can't toss a wingtip shoe in Philly without hitting Estey - then having it bounce onto Rendell, too.

So to suggest that Rendell has no ties to the IVC is laughable.

Even before Estey's association with the IVC, Rendell took an interest in tour operations there. In 2003 IVC's then-president, Bill Moore, sent Rendell a memo described as "a critical evaluation of the Constitutional Walking Tour" - an evaluation made in response to a request from the governor's office.

"I think I deserve to know what it said," says Bari.

I don't blame him for wondering, given how the IVC has marginalized Bari's presence at the IVC since then.

For years, two big tour operators - Ride the Ducks and Philadelphia Trolley Works - have contracted with the IVC for marketing space inside the center, while also enjoying a curbside presence so ubiquitous that visitors would assume no other tour outfits exist in the city.

I've written before about the efforts of Bari and other small tour operators to negotiate for even a sliver of that advantage, only to hit a wall of politics and gamesmanship that ought to make us ashamed that the IVC sits in the cradle of liberty.

Anyway, Estey maintains that the IVC is not a public entity, like DRPA, so he's not required to make public its meeting records.

Except that the IVC sure looks like a public outfit. It sits on land owned by the National Park Service, and it receives millions in public money from the city, the state, the feds and - of course! - DRPA.

"Like any other business, we negotiate with vendors," Estey has said. "We don't make public our deals with our vendors, because then we wouldn't get good deals."

You know what's weird? Vendor contracts are public at every Park Service entity in the country. You can even view some of them online.

Leave it to Philly to figure out a way to structure the IVC's organization so that such transparency isn't a given.

Back in July, when DRPA's patronage scandal hit the fan, Rendell said he took "the lion's share" of blame for DRPA's failings. He promised an agency that was "more transparent, more open."

It's time for the same at IVC.

As for Bari, he's gearing up to fight not just the suit Rendell has filed, but a second one, brought against him by the city on the same grounds.

"The governor said our request was burdensome to the state," says Bari. "I'd say bringing a lawsuit against us is burdensome to the state, too. And to my company - a small business employing 30 people."

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/polaneczky. Read Ronnie's blog at http://go.philly.com/ ronnieblog.

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