In Through the Out Door

A new law hastens a Brown official's departure

Mayor Lee P. Brown's chief of staff resigned last month after negotiating an agreement for the city to tap into a statewide on-line data system built by technology and accounting giant KPMG. The company eventually will recoup part of its investment in the project from fees charged to users of a city portal into the system.

Guess what's Cheryl Dotson's first stop after leaving City Hall? An executive position in Houston with KPMG, of course.

An endless spinning of the revolving door that quickly catapults city officials to private companies doing municipal business is nothing new. Dotson's departure is notable only because it is the last such switch. This week a new ordinance designed to slow down the revolving door took effect.

Councilman and mayoral candidate Chris Bell authored the law that mandates a yearlong hiatus before departing city employees can sign contracts with the city or hold more than a 40 percent share in companies that have municipal contracts. It also bans former city workers from directly contacting councilmembers or administration staffers to influence legislation or related city action during that same yearlong cooling period.

Bell says there have been several instances where there was "at least the suggestion" of departing city employees exploiting their positions. "There was a feeling on the ethics committee that in the area of elected officials, that would only get worse in light of term limits."

Houston's three-term limit for elective positions guarantees a rapid turnover of officials going back to the private sector. The ordinance aims to at least delay the ability of outgoing councilmembers and city staffers to reward their future employers before their departures.

Perhaps the most glaring example of the revolving door in recent years involved Doug Williams. The administrator in the mayoral regime of Bob Lanier helped select Montgomery-Watson and Brown & Root to manage the city's $1.5 billion Greater Houston Wastewater Program. In 1995 Williams jumped directly from the city to a subsidiary of Montgomery-Watson.

In Dotson's case, Bell recalls that she had assured him and other councilmembers at the time of the KPMG discussions that she had no plans to join that firm.

"A rumor was floated that Ms. Dotson was talking to them about possibly going to work for KPMG at some later date," Bell says. "She caught wind of the rumor and assured everyone that there was no truth to it whatsoever."

Contacted at her new office at KPMG, Dotson denied that she had plans to join the firm at the time City Council considered the contract late last year. She also rejected the suggestion that she had helped KPMG land a financial windfall.

"The city hasn't paid a single, solitary dime on this contract," Dotson stressed. "It wasn't like KPMG got some sort of huge deal and made a bunch of money and then decided to hire me."

Bell retorts that KPMG will make plenty of money down the road on those user fees. "I doubt they're doing all this out of the goodness of their heart," Bell cracks. He tells of potential competitors complaining that they were shut out of consideration for the no-bid contract.

The way Dotson explains the situation, she had used a search firm to start job hunting late last year, and had some offers from the Philadelphia area. The search firm needed references, but Dotson didn't want to ask city supervisors for them because that would alert the mayor that she had itchy feet.

"To be honest, at that point I didn't feel comfortable going to the mayor to get a reference," Dotson chuckles. "So I called people I had worked with previously, including KPMG. They said, 'Wait a minute, if you're thinking of leaving, we want to offer you a job too.' "

According to Dotson, that offer came after council had approved the technology agreement. She admits there was the additional incentive to move on before the revolving-door ordinance took effect.

"I … didn't believe it was fair for the city to ask me to have to not work anywhere for a year," explains Dotson. "I can't go practice law somewhere or do some of the things other people do."

Dotson began her financial services career with KPMG and also worked for the City of Houston under finance chief Camille Barnett. She followed Barnett to Washington, D.C., and eventually migrated back to Houston.

According to Dotson, her situation is no different from that of Lanier chief of staff Dave Walden or former city finance chief Richard Lewis or any of the myriad other former city employees who entered the private sector. In fact, she feels the new ordinance could diminish the caliber of public servants.

"To some extent that ordinance created a little bit of a brain drain, because anybody who's good is not going to want to sit out a year after you've come just to help the city," she says.

Dotson's successor, chief of staff and convention center director Jordy Tollett, sees the new law differently. "I think it's a very good ordinance," says Tollett. "It protects the city, and it doesn't bother me one bit."

In fact, Tollett says Dotson's statement that she moved up her departure plans to elude the ordinance could have some later fallout.

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