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.

Brown's appointments since he took office are also non-controversial and widely praised. They include new Public Works Director Jerry King, a former adviser to mayor Fred Hofheinz. King was imported from the Metro Transit Authority hierarchy with a mandate to pooper-scoop the kingdom of Jimmie Schindewolf, the departed Lanier chief of staff and infrastructure warlord. Parks Director Oliver Spellman is likewise struggling to clean up a messy legacy left by Lanier predecessor Bill Smith, who headed a department labeled "out of control" by City Controller Sylvia Garcia. Then there's Fire Chief Lester Tyra, a former union firebrand and popular replacement for much criticized predecessor Eddie Corral.

As Councilman Joe Roach notes, Brown, a former drug czar under Clinton, has appointed many others to special assistant positions.

"I've never seen so many liaisons," marvels Roach. "We've got two youth and children liaisons, we have a drug czar, we have a gang czar, we have a victims' rights czar, we have a hike-and-bike trail czar, we have a neighborhood government czar. If a problem develops, we seem to appoint a czar to that position at a salary of $60,000 to $80,000."

Since most of the czars report directly to Brown, the mayor winds up micromanaging specific issues, observes Roach, and uses up time that would be more profitably allotted to larger management issues.

On a recent Thursday morning, a rare outsider's look into a staff meeting revealed the impacts of Brown's penchant for special appointments.

More than 50 senior staffers and department heads crowded around a long table in the mayor's conference room in the basement of City Hall. For Brown, the antithesis of his predecessor -- wheeler-dealer businessman Lanier -- these gatherings represent a weekly celebration of his approach to governing through the deliberative bureaucratic process.

First up was discussion of the proposed $2.2 billion budget, which calls for no tax increase. Under Lanier, rarely had councilmembers tried to amend the budget in Council sessions, because disagreements were worked out in budget workshops or in personal haggling with the mayor or his aides.

But now, chief operating officer Al Haines, the tall Mormon who previously served Whitmire in a similar role, presented a crib sheet for 27 budget amendments offered by the Republican opposition at the Council meeting the previous afternoon.

"I don't think it's unhealthy," Brown told the group about the proposed amendments. "But it is important to put forth a statement of the administration's position, and it's important for all of you to do it today." (With the dissent of only Rob Todd, Council last week voted to approve the mayor's $2.2 billion budget package.)

Toward the end of the Brown staff meeting, attendees heard from the woman blamed for handing the mayor his first defeat in a Council vote.

The mayor's assistant on youth issues, former police officer May Walker, had stumbled badly on the recent administration proposal to fund area churches for nondenominational youth programs. Critics immediately opened fire on the hastily conceived plan, questioning the lack of synagogues and other non-Christian participants, as well as the lack of consideration of the issue of separation of church and state.

And she almost caused another blunder as she previewed for the staff her plans for an August youth summit called "Stop the Violence: Mayor Brown's Peace Initiative."

Part of her proposal called for a workshop on "Non-Violent Alternatives to Conflict Resolution" -- with the recommendation that it be co-hosted by none other than West Coast rap artist Snoop Doggy Dogg, acquitted of one murder and known for his "pop-a-cop" compositions.

It didn't take much imagination to conjure up the field day critic Todd would have with the idea of the city bringing Snoop Doggy Dogg to Houston to promote nonviolence. Police Chief C.O. Bradford finally broke the meeting's silence, tactfully suggesting that his department screen suggested rap artists to weed out those "unsuited for this type of program." Everybody who was paying attention smiled. The mayor would not be walking the Dogg anytime soon in Houston.

Agenda Director Dan Jones added an insurance question for Walker. "Will any part of this require Council approval?"

"No sir, by no means," she replied earnestly. An amused and knowing Brown cracked his trademark half-smile at Jones. "Now why do you ask that question?"

Replied the agenda director with a broad grin, "We always think of Council first."

More than a few of the 14 councilmembers, including several of the mayor's erstwhile allies, would take issue with that notion. In the first six months of the Brown administration, most of the focus on his job performance has centered around a series of miscues involving staff.

None of the missteps would be considered major, and they aren't significant enough to provide early fuel for an opponent seeking to unseat Brown after one term in 1999. The economy remains strong, and Brown is also sitting on a campaign war chest stuffed with a million bucks.

But the mayor's slow forward pace and leadership style, long on conceptual rhetoric and short on specific proposals, have engendered a feeling that City Hall is drifting.

"I get the feeling not much is happening," says a veteran downtown lobbyist who admits he has yet to get a handle on the new order. "You can look at the agendas and see how much lighter they are than at the end of Lanier's last term."

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