This file photo from 2008 shows players participating in a tournament at the Sandy Springs Tennis Center. A company seeking to operate the center has sued the City of Sandy Springs over its decision to award a contract to another company. Source: City of Sandy Springs

Operation Tennis Inc. in December filed a lawsuit to overturn the city of Sandy Springs’ decision to award a contract to a competitor.

But disputing the contracts to run tennis centers may be as popular as the game itself, public records and newspaper reports show.  In the past, disputes have arisen over contracts to run tennis centers in Sandy Springs and at Blackburn Park, a DeKalb County facility located in what is now the city of Brookhaven.

Operation Tennis’ lawsuit alleges the winning bidder, Groslimond Tennis Services, gave the city “bogus” third-party evaluations of previous work. Some of the evaluations were written by people who appear to work for Groslimond.

President Gery Groslimond denied those allegations. City Attorney Wendell Willard in a Dec. 4 letter told Operation Tennis attorney Bruce Brown that the RFP did not require proposals to include “unaffiliated” third-party evaluations.

“Due to the limited number of public tennis centers that are privately operated, such a requirement may have been difficult or impossible to meet and may have limited or precluded competition,” Willard’s letter says.

Brown said Willard’s response doesn’t make sense.

“You would expect the city, which was duped, to now challenge Groslimond, throw out the bid, etc.,” Brown said.  “Instead, the city is taking the position that the evaluations did not have to be from those who were unaffiliated with the bidder.  In other words, your mother, brother, employee, heck, you could even submit a self-evaluation, and it would be OK with the city.”

A closer look at the history of tennis center operations contracts in Sandy Springs and DeKalb County shows losing bidders opposed contract awards in 2009, 2010 and 2012 using similar arguments.

In 2009, people who supported Fulton Tennis Services keeping its contract to run the Sandy Springs Tennis Center stormed city council meetings. Council members questioned the RFP process and said the winning company – Windward Tennis Management – wasn’t qualified.

Sandy Springs City Council members listened, and kept Fulton Tennis Center Services through December 2012. Complaints in the 2009 RFP focused on the city’s use of three different panels of individuals to review competing proposals. The third panel made the decision to go with Windward.

One of the members of the second panel in 2009 was Vicki Willard, wife of City Attorney Wendell Willard. Another member of the second review panel was Manny Guillen. Guillen and Vicki Willard have also served on the board of directors for the nonprofit Sandy Springs Tennis Association, federal tax records show. Wendell Willard is also listed as the Tennis Association’s registered agent on state incorporation records. Guillen and Vicki Willard were not paid for their work on the Tennis Association board, tax records show.

The Tennis Association’s unpaid board members also include Ivo Barbic, the CEO of Fulton Tennis Center Services, according to the tax records. Guillen has been on the association’s board since it was founded in 2008. Tax records show Vicki Willard was on the board in 2008, but left the board in 2009. Barbic joined in 2009 and is still a member, according to the Sandy Springs Tennis Association’s website.

Wendell Willard said Mayor Eva Galambos asked his wife to serve on the second RFP review panel in 2009.

According to meeting minutes, Galambos said the final evaluation panel that in 2009 recommended Windward didn’t know enough about tennis. Guillen and Vicki Willard weren’t on the final panel, according to city spokeswoman Sharon Kraun.

Galambos said the most recent RFP process was designed to avoid the problems that arose in 2009.

“We had a very controlled system this time that followed the procedure of the big contract selections for the city in 2011,” Galambos said.

In 2010 controversy arose again, this time in DeKalb County. Operation Tennis, the company now suing the city of Sandy Springs, ran the Blackburn Tennis Center in Brookhaven for decades before the county in 2010 awarded the contract to Universal Tennis Management.  Supporters of Operation Tennis stormed DeKalb County Commission meetings. They questioned the bid process and said Universal Tennis Management didn’t have enough experience running tennis centers.

The county delayed the contract but eventually kept Universal Tennis Management.

DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader wasn’t sure why there were similar complaints about the RFP processes in DeKalb and Sandy Springs.

Universal Tennis Management made a proposal in response to the recent RFP to run Sandy Springs Tennis Center and made a proposal in response to the city’s 2009 RFP. Groslimond in 2010 made a proposal to take over the Blackburn operations contract. Operation Tennis Inc. bid on the Sandy Springs Tennis Center contract in 2009.

Blackburn Tennis Center is located in the new city of Brookhaven, which could soon move to take control of it. Then it could issue its own RFP for tennis services. Current players at Blackburn said the courts need repairs.

“They are very nice, just the courts need resurfacing but that seems like it will be an issue for the city of Brookhaven to make the call on what they will do to the center and courts,” player Mary Craven said.