Major Mayoral Mayhem
by Lynn Ashby
Whoever takes over as the next mayor of Houston will feel like he or she is being made the commander of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 8. The winner may want a recount, because this city is a mess. The water and sewer pipes are breaking, the potholes go unfixed. Only emergency repairs are being made to our infrastructure because we can’t keep up with regular maintenance. Downtown Houston is paralyzed because of problems with massive street construction that is behind schedule. The police department is in shambles. Firefighters are bitter that it took the death of a revered colleague to get a fourth firefighter on each truck. The budget is an ongoing laugh.
All of these problems go far beyond the sad situations facing many American cities in the current economic downturn, for Houston was in tatters before tatters were cool. Let’s take a look at our finances. Under the leadership of Mayor Lee P. Brown we keep going through an annual budget crisis because we are spending more money than we are receiving. During Brown’s reign, budget problems happened every single year, in good times and bad. When other local and state governments were rolling in taxes during the 1990s, Houston had trouble balancing its budget. Former City Controller Sylvia Garcia would send out word that the city’s projected tax income was too bullish, and the mayor’s number crunchers projected expenses were too low, but no one seemed to care. (Where, oh where, is the Houston Post when we need it?)
Now that the economy really has gone south, the city is closing libraries early, limiting use of public swimming pools and community centers, canceling projects and cutting every corner possible. But the city is just hiding many problems which, like mushrooms, grow best in the dark. An example is police pay. The police agreed to put off a portion of their pay raises after being promised much more later. Thus in a few years, after Brown is gone, the price for buying peace now is going to be a budget-buster of a bill.
While we’re on the HPD, if any mayor in Houston’s history should have known there were problems in the police department, it should have been Hizzonnor. Brown was police chief here for eight years. His own official bio says that he had “a career of public service dedicated to law enforcement.” His bio goes on to say, “He has an undergraduate degree in criminology from Fresno State University, a master’s degree in sociology from San Jose State University and holds both a master’s degree and a doctorate degree in criminology from the University of California at Berkeley.” Yet, are we supposed to believe that this man with all his degrees and all his experience in law enforcement from street cop to police chief of three major cities was clueless about what was happening in his own police department?
And what was going on ranged from the comical to the serious. There is no need to go into detail about the problems in the Houston Police Department, we all know them: the Kmart raid, the police lab screw-ups (which are going to cost us close to $1 million to fix, and the totals are not in yet). After an outside inspection of the crime lab and a series of recommendations, Brown said, “If we follow the road map before us, we will make our crime lab one that really works.” That sounds like a line out of Monty Python.
Recently, there was the reported shakedown of cantina owners, but to be fair, the alleged perpetrators were caught by the HPD. At a time when there was a leaky ceiling in the police lab, the DNA tests were being tossed out and judges were demanding an outside investigation – Brown caused a car wreck while out hunting down bandit street signs. It’s all a matter of priorities.
Houstonians know that the overwhelming number of their cops are straight shooters (OK, a bad choice of words) who daily or nightly put their lives on the line. We love our cops. They deserve better leadership. In the midst of all of this chaos, the mayor is looking for illegal stuck-in-the-mud street signs? Huh?
As the first African-American mayor of Houston, Brown was cut some slack. No one wants to be called a racist; and, to be fair, he had a few accomplishments. He got the light rail system started, some sports facilities done – it might be argued that these terribly expensive playpens for a relatively small number of Houstonians were not the best way to spend taxes – and he acted well after Tropical Storm Allison. Otherwise, for the most part, Brown was a disappointment.
Take, for example, a simple matter of collecting back taxes and fines. How many times have we seen some citizen suddenly become well-known, like announcing for office, only to discover that the person owed back taxes on property? Then there are the uncollected fines. A friend of mine got a ticket for running a stop sign – unfairly, she says, because she stopped at the sign. So, being innocent, she was going to fight the ticket. She retained a lawyer and a court date. The case was postponed. That was a year and a half ago. She has heard nothing. Not even a phone call from the city, clearly because no one has any intention in getting the ticket decided one way or the other.
The Houston Chronicle has reported that 100,000 parking tickets per year go unpaid in Houston, with fines totaling $3.2 million, and that is just in parking tickets. What about all the tickets issued for speeding, running red lights and, of course, running the elusive stop sign? Who is watching the store? No one. Could any business be run in such a manner?
It is not the fault of our outgoing mayor that Houston city government has become so partisan, but he did little to bridge the gap. Even with a strong mayor form of government, these last few years Houston City Hall was one rowdy classroom with a substitute teacher. The late mayor of New York City, Fiorello La Guardia, used to say, “There is no Republican or Democratic way to clean the streets.” New Yorkers named an airport after La Guardia. Houstonians paid for a huge picture of our mayor at our airport.
Lee P. Brown, resume intact, leaves Houston in shambles. We must pity his successor who will preside over the aftermath. Tora. Tora. Tora.