By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Former Houston first lady Elyse Lanier's abrupt resignation as chair of the Houston Image Group earlier this month was in keeping with its defunct slogan: "Houston, Expect the Unexpected." She publicly stated dissatisfaction with the direction the booster agency, founded by her in 1996, had taken in publicizing the wonders of the city to a skeptical nation. But there was a lot more involved than that simple explanation.
Those attending a meeting of the board of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau several months ago got a preview of what was coming -- as well as a firsthand look at the intensifying feud between two of the most colorful and ubiquitous municipal figures of the last decade.
According to Lanier, she rose late in the session to criticize the bureau's handling of the Houston Image Group. Originally set up as an independent nonprofit with both private and public funding, the Image Group was deconstructed into a division of the bureau after mayor Bob Lanier left office.
Bureau president and city convention center director Jordy Tollettcontrolled both the budget and staff of the Image Group. One of his employees was Sarah Turner, a close friend of the Laniers and a former mayoral spokeswoman under Lanier. Elyse Lanier chaired the Image board but felt increasingly disregarded concerning decisions.
She told bureau trustees that the Image Group "was not getting it done, we are not doing anything about image." She claims Tollett then piped up with "that's because Sarah Turner misses work so much."
Elyse says she shot back: "Don't you ever bring her name up or say something like that again. That is a very sick woman. And furthermore, the leadership of this group is you, and you're doing nothing about it."
Tollett denies saying anything negative about Turner's work, and claims his comment was more along the lines of "Unfortunately Sarah's been out for a while." He also recalls Lanier's comments to the board as being more of a general exhortation not to be defensive about negative points like Houston's weather. Tollett defends the bureau as continuing the campaign to improve Houston's image.
"The message has never stopped," he says. "I don't know what we were doing less of, or more of, or whatever."
He also claims to be mystified as to Lanier's motives in openly criticizing the efforts.
"I don't know why she's doing this. Why is she saying what she's saying? She's just mad at me, I guess."
Lanier says she hasn't talked with Tollett since the board meeting. After resigning, she went public to charge that the Image Group has largely abandoned its stated purpose of improving Houston's image. "I don't think it's really doing anything," she declares, "and I don't really feel I have the say about what it should do."
The first claim of ineffectiveness is not a new one, and has been voiced by critics since the group was launched. The second is more to the point: When the Laniers can't call the plays, they tend to go find themselves another game.
According to the group's executive director, Sonia Garza, Elyse had not been very active with the group in recent years, and had never raised a question or disagreed about projects during meetings. The Image board also includes Houston Chronicle publisher Jack Sweeney.
Elyse says that once the group lost its budget autonomy and was merged with the convention bureau, she was increasingly marginalized. She blames Tollett and Don Henderson, the Hyatt Regency exec and bureau executive committee member, for discarding the "Expect the Unexpected" slogan over her protests.
"The first couple of years after Bob left office, I wasn't that active because we were doing things like heart attacks, bypass and recovery," she recalls. "At the point at which I came back, I was in name acting chairperson, but I didn't have that much say. It had gone a different direction."
The group has had problems with its own image since Elyse founded it in the heyday of her husband's domination of City Hall. The couple went on a fact-finding tour of New York City and made the shocking discovery that people there had low opinions of Houston.
After the Image Group began operations, critics ridiculed the plush decor of the organization's earlier office at the Rice Lofts. More complaints came over the spectacular flop of a $600,000 project to place rub-off cards in Time magazine, offering trips to meet Houston personalities as the prizes. Out of four million magazine issues, only one hapless reader bothered to return a winning card. Promoters eventually parceled out the trips as consolation prizes to contest junkies.
Elyse's own media interviews -- they played up the city's stifling summertime humidity as a skin preservative and touted the necessity of portable shampoo bowls to counter Houston's bad hair days -- practically begged to be spoofed. A promotion touting the city's jumbo cockroaches as trendy urban pets seemed just around the corner.
Councilmembers privately grumbled about the continuing public funds flowing for what seemed more like a pet project for a mayoral spouse. But no one was willing to incur the wrath of the Laniers by pulling the plug, even after his reign as mayor was over.