By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Builder and developer Julio S. Laguarta is a member of the Houston Planning Commission and a vocal opponent of zoning who chaired the successful campaign to defeat a proposed zoning ordinance back in 1993. But that hasn't kept him from conducting most of his homebuilding ventures in stringently zoned Bellaire and West University, where property values seem to go in only one direction -- up. And as it turns out, Laguarta's also personally enjoyed the residential security of zoned Bellaire the last few years, in violation of Planning Commission bylaws requiring members to live within Houston or its extraterritorial jurisdiction.
Laguarta was appointed by Mayor Bob Lanier to the Planning Commission in 1992. At the time, he listed an address in the Brompton Courts apartment complex in southwest Houston, where single-bedroom units rent for $600. But in May 1993, he purchased a house on Patrick Henry Street in Bellaire that he currently calls home and which is valued at $401,000 for tax purposes.
At least he's there for now. Laguarta is in the throes of a messy bankruptcy and has planted a For Sale sign in the front yard of the Bellaire house, for which he was denied a homestead exemption by the Harris County Appraisal District. According to county tax records, the owner of the house, the Laguarta-controlled NHC 5415 Patrick Henry Venture, is delinquent on payment of 1995 property taxes and penalties totaling $3,364.50, with 1996 taxes coming due by the end of January.
Laguarta does have bigger headaches at the moment than paying late property taxes. The Chapter 11 petition he filed in late August listed liabilities of more than $3 million and assets of $1.7 million. The largest creditors are the PNL Texas limited partnership of Fort Worth, which is owed $2.4 million, and Federal Debt Management of Dallas, which is due $154,734. At least Laguarta still has some defenses: According to a detailed home inventory, he has three shotguns, a .22 rifle and a .38 pistol.
In addition to his Planning Commission duties, Laguarta heads Houston Renaissance, a nonprofit corporation that has raised private and public funding -- including a $3.4 million grant from the city -- to purchase and redevelop a 32-acre chunk of the Fourth Ward. In his bankruptcy filing, Laguarta reported having a personal services contract with Houston Renaissance, which apparently has the same mailing address and phone number as Laguarta's private company.
Two advocates of zoning, former councilman Jim Greenwood and neighborhood activist Rosie Walker, both say they'd heard rumors for years that Laguarta didn't actually live in Houston. Greenwood points out that several of the wealthy opponents of zoning, including Metro chairman Holcombe Crosswell and his predecessor, Billy Burge -- both Lanier confidantes who also are involved in Houston Renaissance -- live in highly regulated and privately policed River Oaks.
"To me it was just another example of Houston being an hypocrisy hot spot," says Walker, who credits Laguarta with realizing her goal of living in a zoned community. "That's what we all wanted to do. We just couldn't all move to Bellaire."
Laguarta hasn't exactly been subtle about flouting the Planning Commission's residency rules. He's registered to vote at the Patrick Henry address and listed his residence there in the current phone book. He reportedly bantered at a commission meeting in May that he no longer lived in Houston.
But somehow, Planning Commission secretary Robert Litke, commission chairman Marvin Katz and Lanier executive assistant Joe Weikerth all claimed to be in the dark about Laguarta's residency until The Insider came calling.
"We're not supposed to live in other cities," says chairman Katz. "As far as I know, he lives in Houston."
After Katz relayed our inquiry about Laguarta to Litke, the secretary declared that the commission would look into the question. "I think the first thing is to find out where he lives," said Litke with unassailable logic. "We're trying to do that. And we'll see what happens after that."
A phone call to the mayor was returned by Weikerth, who had already been alerted by Litke. "We immediately looked into the situation," Weikerth reported, "and I don't think there's any doubt at this point that he doesn't live in the city."
Weikerth said, however, that he believes Laguarta was living in the city at the time of his appointment by Lanier in November 1992 and his reappointment in August 1994. "I get word that he apparently moved out in December of 1994," Weikerth added, "but I don't know that to be the case."
Weikerth said Laguarta was out of town at a vacation home in Port O'Connor last week and could not be contacted. An Insider phone message left at Laguarta's downtown office went unreturned.
"Once we investigate and look into the situation and find he truly is not [a resident], I think he will end up resigning, as it calls for in the city ordinance," predicted Weikerth, who admitted that the Lanier administration probably should keep better track of the state of the Planning Commission. "I think now that this issue has come up, obviously we're going to have to be a little more diligent about making sure that these appointments understand what their responsibilities are and the eligibility requirements are."
The appointees apparently are not the only ones who've neglected their responsibilities. Commission chairman Katz points out that not only has Laguarta's term expired, but so have those of the other 13 appointed members of the commission (which has two vacancies). Asked when the mayor plans to either reappoint the current commissioners or name new ones, Weikerth said that his boss, mayoral chief of staff Jimmie Schindewolf, "is looking into that even as we speak."
Schindewolf's wife, by the way, is also on the Planning Commission and is not a Houston resident -- but at least she lives in the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction.
Profiles in Courage, Chapter One
You know the 1997 mayoral race is just around the corner, because former police chief, current Rice professor and soon-to-be contender Lee P. Brown is actually starting to talk like a candidate -- even to the point of (gulp!) taking a stand on an issue or two. Of course, when you analyze Brown's positions, he winds up sounding exactly like ... Mayor Bob Lanier.
For starters, Brown -- who'll need to attract a sizable share of the low-income black vote to patch together a winning Kathy Whitmire-style coalition -- has come out against the proposal on the January 18 ballot to raise the minimum wage in Houston to $6.50 an hour.
"I grew up as a farm worker, picking cotton and cutting grapes," said Brown, quickly establishing his underclass credentials before sounding the traditional wisdom on the "Living Wage" initiative. "But in this instance, I think it's a bad proposal."
Brown claims a higher minimum wage will hurt small businesses and possibly drive some out of the city -- exactly the argument voiced by Lanier, who generally favors higher wages but believes the proposal will put Houston employers at a disadvantage.
The ex-chief also mirrors Lanier on the other January 18 ballot measure, the proposed city charter change requiring voters to approve tax and fee increases above a certain level.
"I think we have to give some level of credibility to our elected officials. We elect people to make decisions -- that's what democracy is about," he said.
And the downtown stadium?
You guessed it -- Brown's all for it, claiming a new ballpark will provide jobs and help redevelop downtown.
"I also believe our city should have major sports," he elaborated, "that we shouldn't lose our sports teams to other cities."
All well and good, but hardly the stuff to incite a "Brown for Mayor" groundswell in the populace. And when we put the touchy issue of the Kingwood annexation to the professor, we were treated to a return of the vintage "No Rap" Brown, that guy who famously loves to talk his way down both sides of an issue while not saying much of anything.
If you're talking about the people in Kingwood, obviously they're not too excited about joining the city," observed Brown. "If it was put to the people of the city of Houston, I think you'd have an affirmative vote."
Thanks for the weather report, chief, but how would "Mayor Lee Brown" have voted?
After some additional rhetorical tap-dancing by Brown, we finally pinned him down -- sort of -- by just asking if he supported Lanier's position on the annexation.
"That's a clear 'yes,' " Brown replied. "That's an easy one."
Yeah, but not as easy as actually annexing Kingwood.
The Insider can be reached by dialing 624-1483 or 624-1496 (fax), or by e-mail at Insider@houston-press.com.