Term limits and a domineering mayor have combined to make the City Council little more than a rubber stamp. And Houston may pay dearly for that down the line.

It was a Wednesday afternoon in December, and the City Council chamber in the lower level of the City Hall Annex echoed with the sound of one man beating his head against the wall.

To a frustrated Ben Reyes, the eight-term councilman from the east side, simple arithmetic suggested that Mayor Bob Lanier was about to make a bad business deal.

Flanked by two staff members comically struggling with an enormous color-coded map, the mayor was urging Council to approve "industrial district" contracts with four petrochemical plants that sit outside the city. Ordinarily, the city would simply annex the companies' land and commence collecting taxes on the property. But Lanier said the contracts would net the debt-laden city some quick cash -- about $30 million of it over the next four years. And because there would be no annexation, the city wouldn't have to provide costly water, sewer and other municipal services.

"It's the very best deal I could negotiate," Lanier insisted.
But Reyes, who has been a Houston city councilman for 16 years, detected an odor as foul as anything the easterly winds could carry in from Highway 225.

For one thing, city staff reports showed that Houston would realize more than $40 million over the four years, plus about $4 million in tax revenue every year thereafter, if it annexed the land. Reyes pointed out that Lanier could use that revenue to grant raises to rank-and-file police officers and other city employees who have been told by the administration, year after year, that there is no money available for pay increases.

"How do we defend giving these folks a special deal that we're not giving the guys that are out there paying [taxes] today?" Reyes asked. "How do you do it?"

"What did you tell them last year?" Lanier parried.
"Well, mayor, what I told them last year was that I was going to raise their taxes, and I voted to do that," Reyes fired back.

Actually, the veteran councilman knew that arguing with the mayor was useless. For sitting out in the audience were omnipresent behind-the-scenes operators Joe B. Allen and Bob Randolph of Vinson & Elkins and Jim Edmonds of the Greater Houston Association business PAC. The influential trio of Lanier backers were hired by the petrochemical companies to lobby City Council for the industrial district contracts as a way to avoid annexation.

And Reyes knew that his colleagues would crater in the face of that kind of political muscle. Sure enough, most councilmembers didn't hang around to hear Reyes' argument. The horseshoe table around which Council sits was full of empty seats as Reyes battled the mayor alone. In the end, the dejected councilman cast the only dissenting vote against the contracts. His final remarks, it was obvious, were directed at his colleagues, who had filed back into the Council chambers to line up behind Lanier.

"I understood these were very, very powerful people," he said. "The easy thing to do was to leave this thing alone. 'You don't want to fight these people,' I said [to myself]. 'You don't even want to ask the questions.'

"I just think we're really making a bad policy decision that's not in the best interest of the taxpayers of the city of Houston."

How, you might ask, is it that of the 14 members of an elected body responsible for raising your taxes last year, just one objected to the city surrendering millions of dollars in future revenues? The answer is that most councilmembers, like many Houstonians, adhere to a basic philosophy: If it's good enough for Bob Lanier, it's good enough for me.

And, as Reyes discovered last December, even if it's not in the best interests of the taxpayer or city, good luck getting eight councilmembers to take a stand against the mayor. Evidence suggests it's hardly worth the effort: Lanier routinely prevails on even the most controversial issues by a 14-0 margin, and has lost just one vote in the past year -- that one on the proposed purchase of an airplane for the Police Department that he had supported.

When the question arises, even some councilmembers will acknowledge that bucking Lanier is a tricky proposition. They cite a variety of reasons: term limits, which resulted in seven new members on the 14-person Council last year; a city charter that grants broad powers to the mayor while limiting Council's power to dissent; and Lanier's popularity, reflected by poll numbers that many councilmembers interpret as a sign that the mayor's agenda constitutes a public mandate.

"There is a perception that this particular Council goes along with the mayor on everything," admits one of Council's few independent voices, Ray Driscoll, who's in his first term representing Sharpstown and other southwest-side neighborhoods. "But to say it's a rubber stamp is an injustice ... It just so happens that he's the first mayor to come along and resolve some of the problems that this city has, and going against that would be going against reason."

Or so it seems. True, Lanier's agenda is hard to resist. He campaigned in 1991 on the promise to reduce crime and restore the city's crumbling infrastructure. And, in fact, Lanier has repaired hundreds of streets and sidewalks, improved drainage, spruced up dozens of parks and hired 1,000 new police officers.

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