Public and Private Doug

Now that Houston Renaissance is, as they say, pushing up daisies, the nonprofit's project to rebuild Fourth Ward has been turned over to Doug O. Williams. He is chairman of the Midtown Redevelopment Authority, a tax-subsidized venture to redevelop 600 acres between downtown and the Texas Medical Center.

But if Williams's appointment is intended to put the Fourth Ward project back on track, it also raises some troubling issues. Since 1996, Williams has been a well-paid consultant to the publicly funded Houston Housing Finance Corp., which has lent money to the Midtown board. Moreover, while overseeing the redevelopment of Midtown on behalf of the city, Williams entered into private consulting contracts with at least two Midtown apartment developers.

Those companies -- Post Properties of Atlanta and Houston-based Camden Property Trust -- are already major players in the city's urban boom and will almost certainly be interested in bidding on Renaissance's Fourth Ward land. Their relationships with Williams, who is suddenly in charge of lining up residential construction projects for the city's most valuable real estate, could conceivably work to their advantage.

Williams has alternated freely between jobs in both the public and private sectors. That began in 1992 when he sold his share of R.G. Miller, Inc., a local engineering firm, to take a $90,000-a-year job as a "special assistant" to incoming mayor Bob Lanier. Williams, a former chairman of the Houston Contractors' Association, had been one of Lanier's most effective fundraisers. He helped the candidate raise $3 million for his first campaign, much of it from the building and construction communities.

Williams's first duty as a city employee was to be Lanier's eyes and ears in the process of selecting outside consultants to manage the Greater Houston Wastewater Program, a $1.5 billion retooling of the city's sewer system. With approval by Williams, the city's selection committee decided on a joint venture between Brown & Root and Montgomery-Watson Americas, Inc.

In 1995 Williams raised a few eyebrows when Jarl Molander, a local Montgomery-Watson executive, lured Williams away from the city to Operational Services, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Montgomery-Watson. Not long after that revolving-door act, Lanier tapped Williams to chair the Midtown Redevelopment Authority.

Less than a year later, Williams returned once again to the public payroll, this time as "special assistant" to Michael Stevens, president of the Houston Housing Finance Corp. and the mayor's $1-a-year housing and revitalization advisor. Last May, Williams signed a new contract with HHFC. But, unbeknownst to HHFC's board of directors, Williams had already negotiated a private consulting contract with Post Properties, which is developing 800 apartment units, two parking garages and 30,000 square feet of commercial space on the old Bland Cadillac site at Bagby and Gray, one of the largest of the Midtown projects.

If Williams were a city employee -- he isn't, although he works exclusively on city projects -- he would be prohibited from accepting any compensation from contractors doing business with the city. Nonetheless, his business dealings with Post and the possibility that they could constitute a conflict of interest eventually reached the office of Mayor Lee Brown, who called Williams in for a meeting. Williams, citing the "appearance of a conflict," says he quit the Post gig "within 24 hours."

But Williams apparently has no intention of quitting an almost identical consulting arrangement with Camden Property Trust, which is building the 335-unit Park at Midtown complex on two oversized blocks near Louisiana and McGowen.

"I am doing some consulting work with Camden on some property way out west, past Highway 6," acknowledged Williams. He said his work for Post Properties involved projects in Sugar Land and The Woodlands. "I don't do any work for Camden, or anybody else, in Midtown."

Whether that offers enough insulation between Williams's public responsibilities and his personal business dealings remains to be seen. Williams was tapped to run the Fourth Ward project by Al Haines, the city's chief administrative officer, and Dick Rogers, the president of HHFC, which holds the lien on all 1.1 million square feet of Renaissance's land.

Haines did not return several phone calls seeking comment on Williams's dual employment. Rogers said he had no problem with the arrangement, despite the idea Williams expressed at a meeting this month, to target as much as one-third of the Fourth Ward land to apartment developers.

"I really don't see a problem," Rogers said. "Doug is a can-do guy."

-- Brian Wallstin

 
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