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By Sean Pendergast
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Money Changes Everything
Listening to officials of the Houston Police Officers Union endorsing ex-chief Lee Brown's bid for mayor last week, you might have flashed back to 1984, George Orwell's onetime futuristic novel in which history gets rewritten daily and official attitudes and pronouncements change constantly, depending upon the ally du jour.
Leaders of the police employees group, who back in the 1980s routinely denounced the then-chief as "Out-of-Town" Brown and a stooge of the rank-and-file officer's archenemy, Kathy Whitmire, suddenly fell all over themselves praising Brown's empathy with street cops and predicting how sweet life could be for Houston's finest with Brown running City Hall.
So what gives? Had HPOU's leadership mysteriously fallen under the sway of some heretofore-unseen powers of charisma that Brown had been secretly hoarding? Hardly. To hear them tell it, they had been beguiled and bought with a promise from the candidate that he would make HPD competitive in salaries with the top police outfits in Texas within four to five years.
According to Hans Marticuic, HPOU's firebrand president and one of the union officials who broke bread with Brown at the behest of state Senator John Whitmire, that would require a 14 to 18 percent pay increase for Houston officers to raise HPD from its current pay ranking of 24th in the state.
So now Brown is 61 Riesner Street's darling, at least to the 3,650 members of the HPOU. (The smaller police union, the Houston Police Patrolmen's Union, has not endorsed a candidate and has its hands full with a disciplinary dispute over its president's controversial memo suggesting members crack down on scabs during the Teamsters strike against UPS.)
Makes you almost, but not quite, feel sorry for Rob Mosbacher, who tried to win over the cops several months ago by going out on a limb and promising them a 5 percent pay raise this year -- a figure that now looks more like a tip when compared to what HPOU believes Brown has pledged. And for his pains, Mosbacher was criticized by several of the other candidates for failing to specify where he'd get the funding for the salary hike.
Brown claims the only commitment he made to the union was to make HPD salaries competitive with those of other departments, and that that has been his position since he was Kathy Whitmire's chief. Pressed by The Insider as to what constitutes a competitive salary, Brown refused to specify numbers and said, "I'm not giving you a direct answer, because I don't know what I'm going to do right now."
Brown promised to conduct a survey when he becomes mayor that would measure HPD salaries against those in other cities that compete with Houston for police officers and recruits. He added that the cost of living in each locale would have to be figured into the formula to determine a level that would make Houston competitive with other markets for law enforcement personnel.
Either Brown made some specific commitments to the unionists that he won't talk about, or the HPOU leadership is reading a lot of specifics into the candidate's generalities.
In either case, it's amazing how money changes everything. Former HPOU (or HPOA, as it was known until several years ago) president Mark Clark, at one time Brown's harshest critic, was among those officers to undergo the instantaneous conversion and get down with the former Mr. Out of Town.
"Yeah, I criticized the fact he traveled quite a bit," admits Clark. "But he did bring about an image change [for the police department]; he did do a lot of things that put Houston on the face of the national map in the areas of policing, and he deserved proper credit for it." Sounds a bit like Elyse Lanier explaining why high humidity is good for your skin.
Grasping for silver linings, Marticuic has discovered that despite the bitterness between the police and Kathy Whitmire, in some ways Brown was more attuned to cops' concerns than was Mayor Bob Lanier's first chief, Sam Nuchia. And unlike outsider Brown, Nuchia came up through the HPD ranks.
"I will say this for Brown," says Marticuic. "During his tenure as chief, he may have been gone quite a bit and done some other things that basically we didn't care too much for, but he did go in front of Council on numerous occasions and tout the need for salary increases for us. We never got that from Nuchia."
Even with the alleged salary deal, it took a little effort to get the men and women of HPOU to cozy up to Brown. "This position of ours wasn't necessarily the most popular position with all the members," admits Marticuic, who allows that he had to do some persuading to get a majority of his officers to endorse the HPOU board's recommendation. "But circumstances, times and players change somewhat. Everything's so fluid."
The matchmaker between Brown and Marticuic's union was Senator Whitmire, who's gone from being a potential candidate himself to being one of Brown's more effective boosters. Whitmire has close ties to police and firefighter groups and routinely carries their legislation in Austin. He endorsed Brown the same day as the HPOU.