But can it really get any worse than this? Consider the Council "pop-off" session conducted the same week late last year that Reyes mounted his fruitless challenge to Lanier's industrial districts proposal. Pop-off is the weekly Tuesday gabfest when each councilmember is allowed to expound about whatever is on his or her mind. At one time, pop-off was a lively forum for debate, complaints and occasional teeth-baring. Arguments were joined; news was made. Nowadays, it's more of a showcase for how little most of the current Council actually has on its collective mind.

That week's eye-glazing exercise in groveling began when Councilwoman Martha Wong, a former school principal and onetime civic club president, dragged Lanier up to the public podium in front of the Council horseshoe. There, Wong unveiled a framed proclamation honoring Weingarten Realty Management Corporation which, it seems, had launched a program to promote "safer shopping habits."

While the recipients appeared pleased, Wong's windy speech was more of an ill-disguised paean to Lanier, lingering as it did on how such otherwise meaningless gestures promote the public-private partnerships that swell the mayor's heart.

The mayoral platitudes were offered more directly by Michael Yarbrough. He popped off on a news report about a recently rehabilitated low-income housing project -- the kind of heartwarming story that Lanier often complains is missing from the media's coverage of the city. Although he had nothing to complain about, Yarbrough wasn't to be outdone by Wong. He puckered right up and bestowed a big, wet one on Lanier:

"They did not give you credit, mayor," the councilman said with something resembling indignation. "Well, we know all about that. I'd like to give you credit. [The news report] did not mention you at all."

Having contributed mightily to the mayor's considerable ego, but absolutely nothing to the sum of human knowledge, Council segued from pop-off to its public session. A group of women construction contractors had reserved time to protest a suggestion that they be cut from the city's affirmative action program. One of the meatier issues facing Council, it nonetheless provoked little interest. Lanier sparred a bit with a few women bearing statistics; most everyone else doodled on their notepads, yakked on the phone or disappeared backstage for a cup of coffee.

But not John Kelley. Another freshman councilmember, Kelley switched on his microphone and revealed that prior to his election in 1993 he was unfamiliar with the concept of affirmative action.

He then proceeded to illustrate his point.
"I don't know who you want to call a minority, a woman or a Hispanic or a black," Kelley ruminated. "But I guess whoever has the least number of people in a thing are a minority and whoever has the most is the majority."

Such is the nature of the deep thinkers who return each Wednesday morning to consider the actual Council agenda. Most weeks, the length of the Wednesday sessions can be determined by multiplying the number of agenda items by the three seconds it takes Lanier to say, "Discussion? Favoring? Opposed? Carried." Which is to say that before lunch, several million dollars' worth of city business is dispatched with a virtual wave of the hand.

But there is the rare occasion when the swift-moving affair becomes bogged in dissent. While such unpleasantness is usually tamped out before things get out of hand, there are moments when Lanier actually has to exert himself to rein things in.

The Lanier treatment is classic Texas hardball. It begins with a big gap-toothed grin and a generous helping of his rube-like charm. If you haven't hopped on board after that, the mayor's booted feet come off the desk and you're suddenly awash in a blizzard of figures, financial mumbo jumbo and what suddenly sounds like the best idea you've heard all day.

But hesitate again, and all the subtleties disappear. In his long career as a developer and banker, Lanier made and lost more money than most members of City Council combined. He suffers no fool lightly, and if his intellect fails to sway you, it falls to his razor-sharp tongue, practiced in the art of belittlement and bolstered by his towering 6-foot-4-inch presence, to finish the job.

At those moments, says one Council observer, Lanier "becomes almost tyrannical in the way he rules over Council. He just totally emasculates them."

Particularly when he knows they are right. Earlier this year, Council debated giving $423,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds to the Museum of Fine Arts for an expansion of the Glassell School of Art, which the MFA operates. There was no reason to suspect the mayor didn't have enough votes to get the measure passed. But some councilmembers couldn't help but wonder why they were spending money reserved for the needs of the poor on an institution that's not exactly known for servicing low-income Houstonians -- or in dire need of the money.

One member -- it was Reyes, not surprisingly -- wanted to question the museum's contention that the money would help provide arts opportunities to minorities. How could it guarantee that, when the MFA's board was so overwhelmingly white?

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