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.

King's ongoing evaluation of the department has in turn provoked fears that the pipeline of city work could slow down next fall just as declining oil prices undermine the current mini-boom in town. An administration source confirms there has been a dramatic fall-off in the approval of non-utility construction and design contracts that will not become apparent until early next year.

"I've had members of the engineering and architectural communities come and say, 'Look, there are projects that need to be put up on the street that are not being put up,' " says Councilman Sanchez.

"I think what everybody's worried about is that he may get his public works team in place," says Rice Dean of Social Sciences Bob Stein, "but by then, you're in an election cycle and your projects are not getting done."

That slowdown has Brown advisers worried that it could make the mayor, who defeated Rob Mosbacher for the seat, vulnerable to an early mayoral challenge funded by contractor contributions. "If I were a Mosbacher mole-type and was trying to torpedo the Brown administration," warns one of Brown's staffers, "the way I'd do it is to have the infrastructure program stall."

Brown seems oblivious to those worries. "That is not a concern of mine," he responds when asked about a possible construction slowdown. "I don't even know what they are talking about."

The mayor has placed much of the rhetorical emphasis of his new administration on his campaign promise to create what he calls Neighborhood-Oriented Government. His lieutenants can recite line-and-verse the tenets of NOG, starting with "not a program, a concept." To bolster NOG, Brown has created a supporting mythology, namely, that it is an extension of "neighborhood-oriented policing," which the mayor claims to have pioneered and which is now universally accepted as the right way to police communities.

Hall says that skeptics of NOG are making the same mistake he did when Brown arrived in town as police chief in 1982 preaching neighborhood-oriented policing.

"It proved to be absolute genius," says the city attorney. "When you go through a mayoral campaign, the question of police-community relations almost never comes up.... It's a non-issue, and it got to be a non-issue because police started to be involved in the communities, the neighborhoods where they do their jobs. It was magic."

The claim that Brown invented the idea of police involvement in community affairs is, of course, absurd. What he did preside over, in the Whitmire mayorship, was the integration of the Houston police. The aggressive recruiting and promotion of minorities and women stripped the department of its oppressive identity as an occupying force in minority neighborhoods.

To launch NOG, Brown hired Gloria Cordova, a veteran public works assistant director, at $85,000 a year, to oversee the process of delineating "super neighborhoods" within the city and then coordinating communication between city departments and neighborhood leaders and organizations. According to the mayor, the aim is to give neighborhood leaders and organizations a voice in setting priorities for how city services and money are directed to their areas.

Asked whether it might take him three terms in office to instill his concept on the city, the mayor replies airily, "Oh, by that time we should have people coming here looking at what we're doing as a model for the rest of the world."

Roach figures the mayor has a long way to go to make NOG much more than rhetoric. "I haven't seen anything on the ground," he remarks, "and I know Gloria is struggling with the concept and the implementation."

Audiences at Brown appearances have learned to accept speeches long on feel-good generalities about helping and improving the city. At a recent address to a business crowd, he displayed his occasional wooden stabs at humor. Brown told of accidentally boarding a bus with mental patients, who were confessing their delusions. When his turn came, Brown declared he was mayor of Houston, and an attendant said, "This one is really crazy!"

The crowd tittered with an "at least he's trying" reaction. Then came the generalities about his goals, until he veered dangerously close to being specific -- on controversial light-rail issues.

"I'm biased in favor of light rail," he tells the group. "Of course we will have to do studies, but that's my bias." Brown also takes a swipe at his predecessor's killing of a rail plan in 1991, telling the audience that the billions in federal dollars Houston might have used for its transit system were lost to other cities.

Brown's rail bias led him to Dallas for a day of riding and praising that city's train system. It provided the motivation for the mayor's abrupt shakeup of the Metro board, replacing Lanier's buddy and anti-rail ally Crosswell as chairman with Robert Miller, the county appointee who, like Brown, is pushing light rail.

In embracing rail, Brown not only runs the risk of rekindling the bitter rail wars that precipitated Whitmire's defeat in 1991 after five terms. He could also alienate Lanier, the man who succeeded her and also helped Brown win the mayorship.

Lanier makes it clear that in order to continue supporting Brown, he will try to accommodate a minimal rail plan, particularly if it's "part of renewing south Main [Street] and it's a pretty little rail and has some sizzle to it -- a twain twack, I call it...."

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