The Ballad of Bert and Rob and Susan

Caught in a conservative council love triangle

The millennial year has been nothing short of a nightmare for District G Councilman Albert Lloyd "Bert" Keller II. And it shows no signs of getting better anytime soon.

In early June, he had a late-night visit to a topless bar, then ran amok in an inebriated state and drove his Ford Expedition into a parked truck. He left the scene and later pleaded guilty to DWI. Keller drew a year's probation, a $750 fine and 40 hours of community service.

Now the 39-year-old official has found out the hard way that his estranged wife, Susan Sanders Keller, has been seeing his City Council pal and fellow conservative Robert Percy "Rob" Todd behind his back for months.

Recent public sightings of District E representative Todd and Susan out on the town prompted Rob to tell Keller that, henceforth, the couple is going public with the relationship. That leaves Bert in a difficult position, since he has to go to work and sit five feet away from his wife's new boyfriend.

"For him to call and tell me he's dating my wife saddens me," says Keller. "Of the things I've heard, I hope they aren't true. Susan's denied a lot of it, and I take her for her word. Of the things they've both admitted to me, it saddens me."

Keller declined to be more specific. He says of his colleague, "Philosophically we agree on a lot of things. I'm gonna just try to not let it affect the job that I have to represent District G."

Susan filed for divorce last month, citing irreconcilable differences. The couple had been married nearly six years. They split March 4 and were living apart at the time of the DWI. In fact, the police report indicates that when officers went to the Keller home in the predawn hours to investigate the incident, neither parent was at home, and their three-year-old son was in the care of a nanny. Susan's divorce petition calls for joint conservatorship over the boy. The councilman has not yet filed a reply.

According to a colleague, "Bert thinks there's a conspiracy to drive him insane." The kicker is that Keller had been telling his good friend Rob all about his marital problems for months, not knowing Todd was a prime mover and shaker in the situation.

Todd has been separated from his wife, Penny, for some time, although Harris County shows no record of a divorce filing by either of them. The Todds have two sons, and some of his conservative backers are uneasy about the behavior of a public official who has been an outspoken advocate of family values while on City Council. A council source says that in the last year, the formerly straightlaced Todd began tripping the night fantastic with council aide George Biggs, who owns a bar, as well as the other members of the so-called Brat Pack on City Council.

Neither Rob, Susan nor Penny returned Insider calls for comment.

In the past Todd has attacked President Bill Clinton for his extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky, describing it as "what Democrats do." No word on whether he plans to switch parties to match his new lifestyle.

Todd also made a media splash by denouncing the sale of edible underwear at a Clear Lake-area boutique as a threat to public health. When Todd opposed Mayor Lee Brown's after-school program for kids, he declared, "My spouse is my after-school program."

Asked whether he now considers Todd's family-values stance hypocritical, Keller took a long pause before answering.

"I'll leave that for people to make their own decisions on," he replied. "Everybody's entitled to their own opinions, but I'm the last person that's ever going to start judging people."

Brown to Polland: Get Your Nose Out of City Hall!

When mayoral communications director Monette Goodrich called on a Monday morning with an invite to break bread with Mayor Lee Brown in 90 minutes, The Insider assumed his defeat against the tax rollback had provoked panic in Hizzoner's office. On approaching City Hall, however, a quick check of the third-floor windows revealed no lifeboats filled with women and children being lowered to safety.

Instead, seated in his basement dining room for a one-on-one lunch with The Insider, the mayor calmly picked through a diet-conscious shredded chicken salad while forking the man he considers responsible for the increasingly ugly partisan spirit in city government: Harris County Republican Party Chairman Gary Polland.

While plenty of things about the rollback irk the mayor, Polland seems to be the only player associated with it to genuinely anger Brown. Brown says Polland used an unnamed person to deliver a pre-vote message that was as insulting as the resulting council action was damaging to city interests.

"[He said if] I allowed the tax rollback to go through, then he would not interfere with my re-election," recounts the mayor. "I found this to be extremely offensive and outrageous, that he would even assume I would compromise my integrity on something like that. So I sent a message back that I won't repeat.I don't need to be swearing."

Noting that Polland isn't even a resident of the city of Houston, Brown suggested that the chairman ought to practice his beliefs on his home turf before intervening at City Hall.

"You need to keep your nose out of city business," Brown says of Polland. "This is a nonpartisan form of city government. If you're so concerned about tax rates, roll them back in the city where you pay your taxes; and that's Bellaire and not Houston."

In a faxed response to Houston Press inquiries, Polland denied sending Brown any message "directly or indirectly." If the mayor decides to support the rollback, "I would be happy to congratulate him for doing what is right," Polland said.

Council observers were mystified when Brown allowed the tax rollback proposal to go to a vote. Allies of the mayor on the council assumed Brown's team had made a deal for the support of the swing vote -- at-large Councilmember Carroll Robinson.

Brown says he was relying on a promise Robinson made to him after Brown's help in getting him elected. "He had said to me and other people as well that he would never be the eighth vote against me," explains Brown. "I took him for his word."

With the tax rollback balloting knotted at 7-7, Robinson's name was called. He sided with the Republicans on the council. And Brown got what he considers the first major defeat of his administration.

"I expect that when someone tells you something, they live up to their word," says Brown. "That's the way I was brought up. Your word is your bond."

Robinson denies ever promising Brown such unqualified support. "That would be illegal, silly, and that would give up any political leverage I had at this council table," says the councilman. "I'm not going to give up the one thing the voters gave me. I enjoy being the last vote on council."

The other Democrat voting for the rollback, Chris Bell, did not surprise the mayor. "As I can see right now, Bell's going around talking to different people figuring out whether he can get their support for mayor," comments Brown. "So I assume what he did was part of his bid to become the mayor next year."

Aside from forcing $16 million in cuts to the city budget, Brown contends the rollback vote could endanger the city's credit rating as well. "If that happens," he warns, "then we end up paying more money for the money we borrow. And that's going to have an impact on everybody in this city."

According to the mayor, the only way to return the city to nonpartisan politics is to get rid of the limit of three two-year terms. That forces officials to curry party favor in order to have political futures in state and federal partisan elections, Brown says.

"At some point we need to look at where we are and get councilmembers and the mayor four-year terms," argues Brown. "Two terms for eight years. Then you can lay out and come back again like in many other big cities. This is a big city, and it doesn't make sense running for office every two years."

As for Brown, the defeat against the rollback was a needed wake-up call to start personally taking his message to the media. After years of dismal press relations, in Goodrich he has apparently found a communications director who knows how to communicate, if he's willing to listen to her.

"People that meet him on a one-on-one basis find him quite funny and clever," says Goodrich. "Just like the public sees him as a talking head, it's good to have the media see him one-on-one and as a person."

Wonder why it took the Brown administration three years to figure that toughie out.

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