The Great Non-Communicator

Houston's new mayor is working as hard as, or harder than, his predecessors. Now if only he could find a way to tell people about it.

City Attorney Anthony Hall relaxes in his sunlit office at the old City Hall and searches for words to explain the Lee Brown management style. The affable lawyer is an expert on government leadership, having served over the past two decades in the state Legislature, on City Council and as chairman of the Metro Transit board under Kathy Whitmire. Describing his new leader to an outsider is a challenge.

"I think there's no secret that probably the most different aspect between him and either Bob Lanier and Kathy Whitmire is that you can go in a meeting with Brown, and you can talk for 30 minutes, and come out and not know what he thinks about the issue," says Hall.

Brown simply sits and listens to the presentation, relates Hall, "and that is totally different from both Lanier and Whitmire. Get about two sentences out with her, and she was going to tell you for the next hour everything she thought about the thing."

Hall routinely takes calls from befuddled department heads who just met with the mayor and need guidance. "I said, 'You just left talking to him, so what'd he say?" recounts Hall. "And they say, 'I don't know.' " Once Brown feels he's gathered enough information, he acts decisively, says Hall, but the lack of an immediate reaction confuses directors who are used to a forthright executive.

If there's one consistent theme in Mayor Lee P. Brown's first six months in office, it's been communications -- or rather the lack thereof. On the most literal level, Brown hasn't been able to articulate the messages of his administration, or find and keep a competent communications director to do it for him. Nick Rivera, the only person to hold the position, lasted less than two months.

Serving as the mouthpiece for the great non-communicator is less than an inviting assignment. A number of veteran public-relations types have considered the opportunity and passed on it. At present, lining up a media interview with the chief executive can take months. His weekly press conferences at the Council table are largely an exercise in deflecting questions rather than answering them.

The same thread runs through his relations within his own administration, City Council friends and foes, and the community at large. The mayor makes a big show of his availability to take complaints from citizens at town meetings and in Mayor's Night gripe sessions -- laudable enterprises, but hardly the stuff that radiates the image of a strong leader.

"Why I, as mayor, would want to take on the direct complaint channel from citizens is beyond me," says Councilman Orlando Sanchez. He points out that Brown has a whole division called Citizen's Assistance to perform that role.

"For the mayor to go out every day and listen to complaints, well, I think what we need is vision and leadership from that office, a macro-view of the city. He's heavily into micromanaging."

Brown's method of running City Council meetings is equally enigmatic. He presides over the other 14 members like a schoolmaster who has delegated the teaching chores to several favored students. Brown rarely answers when opponents attack administration proposals, preferring to stay above the fray. As a result, Council meetings often drift on and on, as members bicker and quibble over matters both substantial and procedural.

"If you ever differed with Lanier on anything, you knew you had to have your ducks in a row, because he was going to take you on," says at-large Councilman Chris Bell, who believes Brown's hands-off leadership style encourages opposition.

"There are certain times," opines Bell, "when you have to engage the opposition, that you can't leave it to anybody else to fire back." That's mostly what the mayor does, leaving most of the talking to mayor pro tem Jew Don Boney, the administration's designated spokesman.

"Lanier carried the debate," says a Council ally of the mayor, "and Brown is going to have to start doing that. You can't just rely on other people."

Houstonians have had plenty of time to get a measure of the mayor since his arrival from Atlanta in 1982, as Houston's first black police chief, yet the image of this son of California migrant workers as a stolid, cautious, decent man has changed very little. But contradictions abound in his style: What some find unresponsive and boilerplate in Brown, others find predictably reassuring. What he sees as his strengths as an administrator -- caution, non-confrontation and quiet competence -- are his weakness as a political figure. Except in private conversation, in which he is rumored to occasionally be lively, Lee Brown is deathly boring.

Since assuming office in January, the 60-year-old Brown has quickly disabused campaign critics of the notion that he's a lackadaisical executive (his travels while police chief earned him the sobriquet "out-of-town Brown"). Instead, the mayor has jammed his schedule with appearances and meetings seven days a week, to the point where staffers have begun appealing to him to take a day off occasionally.

"He is deep, deep, deep into the minutiae of running the city," says former Lanier adviser Dave Walden. "He's exhibited a work ethic that people didn't think he had in him, especially at that age. He's not a young guy."

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