The Rule of Men, Not Law

Who gave Lanier & Co. permission to loot Metro? They did.

One of the more instructive defenses of Mayor Bob Lanier's siphoning of Metro funds to fill potholes and pave streets was delivered last week by Louis Macey, the former city councilman and onetime Harris County appointee to the transit agency's board.

"When a public body takes an issue to the public for an election," Macey told City Council, "the wording on the ballot seldom explains the issue to be voted upon."

In a general sense, Macey was right: rarely does the legalese on ballot measures lay out in clear, precise language what the public is being asked to approve, as anyone who's voted for or against amendments to the Texas Constitution in the past few years can attest.

But Macey was speaking specifically of the 1988 referendum in which voters in Metro's service area approved the agency's Phase 2 Mobility Plan. And the language of the proposition on the ballot for that election explained exactly and without ambiguity what voters were being asked to approve, at least in regard to the component of the mobility plan nearest and dearest to Lanier's and Macey's hearts:

"... the dedication ... of 25 percent of the receipts of Metro's 1 percent sales tax collected from February 1988 through September 2000, which is to be used for general mobility projects (consisting of major thoroughfare improvements, underpasses and overpasses and other projects designed to lessen traffic congestion) ...."

There was another thing about the 1988 election that was crystal clear to voters: the Phase 2 Mobility Plan, as approved unanimously by Macey and the other Metro board members before being sent to voters, called for Metro to pursue the construction of a rail transit system for the Houston area. Rail opponents such as Macey and Lanier -- who at the time, with the grudging assent of the city's business establishment, was the area's de facto transportation czar -- had agreed to a rail system in return for setting aside 25 percent of Metro's penny sales tax for street repairs.

Sixty percent of voters approved the total mobility package, but, in retrospect, they might as well have found something better to do on that Election Day. The vote, it turns out, was meaningless. The agreements and compacts leading to the election, and the results of the election itself, have long since been tossed in the garbage. Now, the words on that 1988 ballot simply mean whatever Bob Lanier and his buddies want them to mean.

"It is absolutely intellectually dishonest," former Metro board chairman John King, who helped draft the ballot measure, says of Lanier's efforts to justify the use of more than 25 percent of Metro's sales tax revenue and pad his own city budget with the funds. "But if people don't challenge Lanier on things, he's going to try and get away with it."

According to Macey, an investor who described himself to Council as an "unemployed politician," the men who met behind closed doors to hash out the city's transportation future eight years ago actually intended something different than what was on the ballot when it came to earmarking mass transit funds for streets.

"It meant at least 25 percent," Macey explained.
Substance-wise, Macey's freewheeling 45-minute analysis, in which he offered several creative readings of the ballot measure, provided little new or noteworthy in the ongoing revisionist effort to rewrite the results of the 1988 referendum. But his appearance did serve to revive questions about the private negotiations leading up to the vote.

The Council meeting must have seemed like old times for Macey and Lanier, since sitting out in the audience were Metro chairman Billy Burge and board members P.J. Lionetti and Jack Calvin. In late 1987, those three and Macey composed the anti-rail faction of the nine-member Metro board in negotiations for a new mass transit plan for Metro. Led by Lanier -- then a private citizen but recently chairman of the state highway department -- they pushed Metro to give up a portion of the sales tax to pay for street and bridge work as part of the plan.

King says he wanted the full support of the board before taking the plan to voters. He opened negotiations with Lanier and the board's anti-rail faction with an offer of a 5 percent set-aside. "I knew that I would go up to 25 if need be," King recalls. In a further effort to placate Lanier, then-mayor Kathy Whitmire offered him the chairmanship of the area's regional mobility committee, which would give Lanier influence with the state on transportation issues.

Lanier accepted, but the two sides didn't agree on the general mobility set-aside until an 11th-hour closed-door meeting. In an unwitting admission of the way the negotiations skirted the edge of legality, Macey says Lionetti excused herself from the discussion in order to avoid violating the state's open meetings law. Just hours before the vote, King and the board's remaining rail opponents finally settled on 25 percent -- a figure Macey says everyone on his side assumed was a minimum.

"We were so tickled to get a figure written down, okay," Macey said in a phone interview last week, "that you couldn't interpret 25 percent to be less than 25 percent. We interpreted it as you have to spend at least 25 percent, and not in any one year."

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