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The mayor who can't deliver bad news

Mayor Lee Brown may be the ultimate bureaucrat. He ascended to the top of the city pyramid after a career of police chief appointments in nearly every corner of the country, culminating with the Clinton cabinet post of Drug Czar. With that background, you'd think his administration would at least have its rhetorical and ceremonial p's and q's down pat.

Not so, judging from recent mayoral commendations that could double as a Brown stop sign, and the mangling last week of the announcement of who stays and who leaves the City Planning Commission. Apparently reluctant to issue Dear John letters to two holdovers from the administration of mayor Bob Lanier, the mayor's staff notified everybody who was being reappointed to the unpaid positions on the commission, but didn't bother to inform those who weren't.

The commission fiasco was similar to a faux pas early in Brown's tenure, when he flushed out Lanier's anti-rail chairman and appointees on the Metropolitan Transit Authority board with little notice and none of the usual warm and fuzzy thank-yous for unpaid civic duty.

The latest confusion began at a Planning Commission meeting two weeks ago. All the members received ceremonial commendations from Brown that "universally affirm special trust and confidence in the integrity, diligence and judgment" of each member. Since the terms of nearly half of the 20 members had expired, commissioners with shaky portfolios assumed that getting the commendations signaled reappointment to their posts. Not that they were overly impressed with the form of the paper plaudits, which were inexplicably dated December 28, 1998.

"They're awful," commented one of the recipients. "Instead of saying the 'City of Houston,' it has 'Lee P. Brown' in giant letters. It was like Lee Brown was the City, and the City was the mayor. Just the reverse of the way it ought to be. It's printed on brown paper -- just like a brown paper sack."

Three days later, commissioners began getting mayor's office letters, dated several weeks earlier, notifying them of their reappointments. Everybody, that is, except commissioners Louis Macey, a former councilman and Metro board member, and Peter Oxman, a Baker & Botts lawyer. As to why they didn't make the cut, one commissioner speculates that Oxman had been close to former councilmember Helen Huey and lost his sponsor when she left office. Macey is a prominent Republican and anti-zoning stalwart who had not cozied up to the Brown administration.

But no one bothered to inform the pair they had been expended until after Brown staffers posted a City Council agenda item nominating their two replacements. They are Algenita Scott Davis, a Chase Bank executive, and Jon Strange, a politically savvy engineer known for spraying contributions among a wide spectrum of politicians. Associates say he's also a links fanatic who never met a golf tournament committee he didn't want to chair.

Macey and Oxman finally got the news of their demise from Planning Department Director Bob Litke, an ex-officio commission member.

"I received a phone call from Mr. Litke informing me that it was time for reappointments and that the mayor was not reappointing me," recalls Macey. "I said that was fine with me, and I said the sooner the better. Then he said, 'Well, I think it's effective immediately.' "

Macey says Litke's last comment was, "You mean no one's called you?" Oxman gave the same basic account of events to the Insider.

Asked about the notification blunder, Planning Department spokeswoman Suzy Hartgrove tossed the public relations hot potato in the direction of the mayor's office. She says Litke checked this week to find out if the mayor's staff had bothered to make courtesy calls to the exiting board members and was told none had. "So he went ahead and made phone calls to them," says Hartgrove. "I don't know what the procedure normally is in the mayor's office, so you should check with them."

Mayoral Communications Director Don Payne says notification letters for the new appointees and those being replaced usually are mailed out at the same time. "That didn't happen this time," admits Payne. "It was an oversight, and that's why Litke had to call them."

As for the brown paper commendations with the mayor's name in banner type, a City Hall source says those usually go to the mayor's department heads. They are expected to display them prominently on their office walls. That won't happen with at least one Planning Commission recipient, who explained that the "honor" had wound up in the trash.

Tell, But Don't Show
In another instance of its policy of "Don't Ask, and We Won't Tell," the Brown administration allowed an audit firm looking into the mishandling of a city-funded housing project to give an oral rather than written report to city lawyers. That report was not shared with City Controller Sylvia Garcia, whose office had paid for the audit.

The target of the $35,000 study by KPMG Peat Marwick was a city contract with Mastermark Homebuilders, which agreed in 1996 to construct 110 single-family homes for low-income residents in north Houston. The company completed only 39 dwellings and spent twice the allotted $3 million lent by the city before it went belly-up, leaving behind tangled finances and potential liability claims by subcontractors and residents. After the controller pressed for an audit of the housing mess, City Attorney Anthony Hall agreed but asked that his lawyers manage the contract because of the potential that the findings would be legally sensitive. Hall argued that the City might be sued over Mastermark's conduct. Without telling the controller, he then signed an engagement letter with KPMG that provided a nifty way to keep the audit results secret.

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