Image Scrimmage

Lanier bolted the booster group after an ill friend negotiated a buyout

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.

Lanier says the Image Group became ineffective.
Deron Neblett
Lanier says the Image Group became ineffective.

Bureau president and city convention center director Jordy Tollett controlled 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.

The Image Group was launched on the premise that half its funding would come from private sources, although it never came close to fulfilling that goal. The $1 million budget shrank to $500,000 this year, with the cost split 50-50 between the city aviation department and the convention bureau.

The aviation department money mostly went in nearby markets to advertise Houston's airport system as a gateway to Texas. The proposed budget for next year is slightly expanded with an additional $100,000 from aviation.

Elyse says she initially raised private money, but "when I took a little sabbatical, nobody was raising money. I did the fund-raising, but Sonia and no one else went out and raised money after I left."

As for the Time debacle, Elyse admits she pushed the project, but "obviously, it didn't work out the way we wanted it to, but it really didn't get the proper promotion."

City Hall insiders believe the timing of her resignation had more to do with personalities than public-relations philosophy. It's a premise that she does not completely dismiss.

Turner, Elyse's former PR business partner and Lanier spokeswoman, transferred to a $90,000-a-year post at the convention bureau at the end of the Lanier mayorship in 1997. In the new administration of Lee Brown, the bureau was widely viewed as a safe harbor arranged by the Laniers for Turner and another mayoral staffer, Barbara Mendel.

Mendel left the bureau last October. Turner has been seriously ill with hepatitis C since last year and is sometimes unable to come into the office more than once or twice a week. She went on extended medical leave, and the situation finally came to a head with Turner's resignation last month. A lawyer and former mayor Lanier helped her negotiate a sizable -- and confidential -- severance package with the bureau board that, according to a friend, will "give her the time she needs to get well."

Once Turner's deal was secure, Elyse then announced her own resignation. She notified Brown and City Council but pointedly didn't bother to alert bureau president Tollett.

Several City Hall sources put the onus for the confrontation with Elyse on Tollett. Those sources claim that when Tollett took on the role of chief of staff for Mayor Brown and was holding down four different jobs in the administration, his personality changed. Work conditions became "very difficult" at the bureau for Turner and others. Tollett declined comment on Turner's departure, citing a confidentiality agreement on her negotiated severance package.

"I stayed on and stayed involved because Sarah was there," says Elyse, praising Turner's job performance. "With Sarah gone, I had no reason to stay with a group that I feel is not doing the job that I'm interested in. Now I would rather work with another group."

During an interview, Elyse repeated a possible future slogan for her next booster rocket: Houston: Bring the Perception Up to the Fact.

With the first anniversary of the Tropical Storm Allison deluge coming up, some of us would be more than happy if the Fact just stays above the water level this summer.

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