By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
But at what cost to the taxpayer? That will become more apparent this month when Council holds a series of hearings on Lanier's $1.6 billion budget for the 1996 fiscal year, which starts July 1. Based on the budget priorities outlined by the mayor in April, critics say Lanier and his acquiescent Council have placed Houston on a precarious financial footing for the future. They say the mayor's restructuring of the city's bond debt in 1992 has put the city in a fiscal bind that will force Lanier's successor to face the unpalatable choice of either cutting services or raising taxes. And they contend he is destroying Metro by taking more than $200 million of the transit agency's once-healthy surplus to pay for street repairs and free up city funds for policing.
Despite those concerns -- and not to mention last year's 5.5 percent property tax increase -- there are scant signs that if Lanier wanted to put the children of councilmembers to work paving the streets with gold, he would face much of a fight.
Controller George Greanias, the city's chief financial officer, has been the most persistent critic of Lanier's financial strategy. In yet another attempt to warn the city's elected officials that hard decisions are ahead, the controller prepared a response to Lanier's budget blueprint for the perusal of council-members. As usual, it was to little avail: Council unanimously approved the mayor's priorities without so much as noting the controller's point of view.
"Part of the concern to me is the way this Council simply accepts at face value whatever they are told by the administration, whether it's about budget numbers or the facts surrounding a particular issue," says Greanias, who was a councilmember under Lanier's predecessor, Kathy Whitmire. "It is so seldom that they question, you can almost count those episodes on the fingers of one hand."
That's a far cry from the Council under Whitmire, who was mayor from 1982-91. That Council, which had a mostly stable lineup throughout the 1980s, acquired a reputation as an unruly and politically savvy body that, as often as not, charted its own course amid shifting coalitions. The imposition of the so-called 9-5-1 Council structure in 1979, in which five council members would be elected citywide and nine others from districts, had resulted in the election of strong, experienced political personalities like Reyes, Anthony Hall, Eleanor Tinsley, Dale Gorczynski, Jim Greenwood and Greanias.
"Three of the new members had been in the state Legislature and two were school board members," recalls Greenwood, who was elected in 1979 and finished out his Council tenure under Lanier. "They were activists in terms of their experience and orientation, and they expected to be able to play an important role in making decisions."
The result, says political consultant Marc Campos, was "a really cantankerous Council. There was a loyal opposition. Benny [Reyes] was a part of it, [Frank] Mancuso, Dale Gorczynski. There were a lot of 8-6 and 9-5 votes."
That was then.
"Where is the loyal opposition to Lanier?" asks Campos. "Who is it? There's nobody out there."
Lanier can sleep nights knowing that the only alliance formed on any issue is the one that lines up behind him. The core of his support -- second-termer Helen Huey and first-termers Martha Wong, Joe Roach, Felix Fraga, John Kelley and new at-large member John Peavy -- is like money in the bank for the mayor, and constitutes six of the eight votes he needs to win.
Four others -- constituency-minded first-termer Michael Yarbrough, Judson Robinson III and Al Calloway, who are black, and Gracie Saenz, a Hispanic -- are grateful promoters of Lanier's much-hyped inner-city revitalization effort and rarely venture far from the mayoral nest.
Meanwhile, Council's most seasoned members, Reyes and Eleanor Tinsley, have chosen their battles carefully under Lanier and rarely have the impact on policy they once did. Both are winding down their Council careers, being term-limited from seeking re-election this year.
That leaves Ray Driscoll and at-large member Lloyd Kelley (who has launched a bid to succeed Greanias as controller with the support of Lanier's big-money backers). Their occasional stubborn resistance is either ridiculed by Lanier or undermined by the reluctance of the rest of Council to weigh their views.
"Many people take the road of least resistance," Driscoll admits with a shrug. "That is, 'This particular thing is not doing any damage to me, so I'll let it ride.' A lot of [councilmembers] aren't experienced business people, so they will go along with whatever sounds reasonable."
This is an added advantage Lanier doesn't need. The city charter gives Houston's mayor almost complete control over Council, as well as carte blanche to set the agenda, appoint the committee members and make the rules under which they will operate.
But the charter also allows for a certain amount of autonomy by councilmembers, such as the right to obtain information from city departments on their own, to set their own committee agendas and create ad hoc panels independent of the administration. And by virtue of its numbers, Council is designed as a check and balance to the mayor's power.