Yet, the current City Council willingly allows itself to be almost totally dominated by Lanier. An example is Lanier's recent attempts to gain control of Council committees. Three months ago, the mayor reduced to three the number of committee members required for a quorum. The obvious breach of Robert's Rules of Order went unchallenged.

Last month, the mayor tried to take it further. In a terse letter from the office of Lanier's agenda director, Dan Jones, committee chairmen were notified that committee agendas were to be routed through Jones' office. After review by Lanier, the "approved agendas" would be posted. Just one councilmember -- Driscoll -- objected. He managed to get the order withdrawn with a strongly worded response to Lanier.

But most councilmembers seem to simply resign themselves to the fact that they have no authority.

A case in point is the Lanier administration's reworking of the city's Minority Women and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program. In the normal committee process, the revised ordinance would have gone from the mayor's office to the Council's MWDBE committee for additional input before being presented to the whole Council. But committee members voted against reviewing it and sent it directly from Lanier's office to the Council table. It was an obvious move to appease the mayor, who faced opposition to the new program from black councilmembers. The new ordinance won unanimous Council approval, with Yarbrough, Calloway and Lloyd Kelley -- who were known to be displeased with the new ordinance, for various reasons -- choosing to skip the vote rather than publicly register their dissent.

"Democracy," observed one City Hall staffer, "is a real irritant to the mayor."

In many ways, Lanier's dominance of Council hearkens back to pre-Whitmire days -- which is exactly where Lanier's primary backers, the business community elite, wanted to be when they raised $3 million for his 1991 campaign. Though Lanier had never held elected office before becoming mayor, he has contributed cigar smoke to enough backrooms to know how things really get done.

Lanier supporters insist the mayor encourages debate on the issues. But invariably such discussions are held behind the scenes among a group of advisors that includes Joe B. Allen, Metro chairman and developer Billy Burge and mayoral co-chiefs of staff Dave Walden and Jimmie Schindewolf.

"It's not nefarious, but the [public] debate is not there," says Bob Stein, a Rice University political scientist. "It's kind of a throwback. Hang around City Hall and you see the Burges and the Schindewolfs. None of them are elected, but they are defining the agenda."

They are also quite influential in making or breaking councilmembers' future political aspirations -- which, on the current body, run high. It's no secret that three of Lanier's most obsequious backers on Council -- Huey, Roach and Saenz -- have higher office in mind: Huey's and Roach's names have been mentioned as future mayoral candidates, and Roach is seeking to ascend to an at-large post in this November's election; Saenz may have her eye on Gene Green's congressional seat. And Peavy, who filled the at-large position vacated by Sheila Jackson Lee's departure to Congress earlier this year, owes his election in February to the money and political guidance of Lanier's backers.

"Money is the organized support in Houston politics," says Bill Simon, a Rice University sociologist and former head of the school's now-defunct Institute for Urban Studies. "As a result, they're all cozying up to the Greater Houston Partnership ... Without their backing, you're in deep trouble. And you get their backing by displaying that you are a good soldier."

Somehow, one suspects this is not exactly what proponents of term limits envisioned when they pushed through the 1991 ordinance capping the tenure of the city's elected officials at two three-year terms in any one office. Term-limit advocates such as investor Clymer Wright, who was instrumental in the passage of the ordinance and the later closing of the "loophole" that allowed term-limited officials to petition their way on to the ballot, insist that councilmembers will become more independent if they know they can't make a career out of the position.

But the inevitable election of novices with no political resources and experience can only strengthen the mayor's hand.

"The district members' whole reason for being is constituent services," says one former Council aide. "They're hypersensitive to getting things done. And the only way to get things done is to go through the mayor. He completely controls the department heads, and they know they had better respond to his favorites on Council."

Even supporters of term limits, like Lloyd Kelley, say that by the time councilmembers become savvy and confident enough to go beyond merely ensuring their constituents' garbage is picked up, they're out of office. Meanwhile, the new mayor can use the inherent powers of the office to get the new Council under his or her thumb.

"What happens when the next mayor gets anointed with that much power, and no one wants him to have it?" Kelley says. "We love those who do good and want to give them all the power to go forth. But the power to do good is the same power to do evil, and Houston, I think, one day will wake up and say, 'Oh my God, I need two aspirin. This is awful.'"

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