By Sean Pendergast
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By Richard Connelly
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By Craig Hlavaty
It's a mid-afternoon Tuesday in the late-summer doldrums at Houston City Hall.
A wheelchair-bound woman rails to City Council about the local Multiple Sclerosis Society failing to provide financial services for patients like herself. It's a medical issue, so -- to the surprise of absolutely no one on council -- freshman member Dr. Shelley Sekula-Gibbs hones in like a buzz bomb with questions that go nowhere. Then she gets defensive on behalf of associations that deal with incurable diseases.
A minister's wife rises from the audience and comes to the podium to complain about sewage backing up in her church. Councilmembers listen respectfully, and most leave the matter to the woman's district councilmember, Carol Galloway. But one, Sekula-Gibbs, just can't resist offering her own concern and comments on the subject.
A shoe-shop owner protests selective landgrabs in the widening of San Felipe in the Galleria area. It's not really Sekula-Gibbs's turf, or issue, but she just has to offer more sympathy.
"Sir, this is a situation some of us are not as familiar with as you are," she begins. A colleague later wisecracks that she could begin all of her comments that way.
Sekula-Gibbs is back at it again, doing what she does best -- or worst -- by stretching out another lengthy public session like soft taffy on a sunbaked sidewalk. It's not that other councilmembers don't speak frequently or ask questions. They just don't do it all the time with everybody.
Veteran councilmembers no longer even bother to roll their eyes at the barrage of questions and comments flowing from the 49-year-old dermatologist from Clear Lake. For them, seven months of togetherness with her has become as predictable and depressing as the heat.
Sekula-Gibbs was elected last fall largely on the name recognition of her second husband, the late KHOU television anchor Sylvan Rodriguez. Once in office, she quickly ditched that politically user-friendly surname after marrying Robert Gibbs, a Reliant Energy executive she was dating during the campaign.
Fellow councilmembers mutter that, no matter what her name, they'd like to clamp a meter on her mouth. They can't really dislike her. In front of the Municipal Channel cameras, she's a regular Spindletop, gushing niceties and concern by the barrel.
Sekula-Gibbs seems oblivious to the snickers and snide comments generated by what some see as her grandstanding. She says it's all about pushing her agenda for public health, which she defines so broadly that it includes air quality, the environment and transportation.
Of course, it's also all about Shelley, the neophyte politician whose previous public exposure consisted mostly of being a regular on the gala circuit for medical groups. A health department source acidly describes her City Hall rampage as "democracy by Junior League."
She says her comments are only an attempt to aid constituents.
"It's that maternal instinct I have to want to help," explains Sekula-Gibbs. "I have a great passion to try and help people. If I don't understand a situation, then I feel a need to understand, because I can't help if I don't understand."
While some councilmembers describe her as earnest, they note that her remarks during meetings are uninformed and even "off the wall."
"She thinks it's part of her responsibility to explain things to people watching council meetings," says a council staffer. "She wants to save everybody who comes to City Hall. It's the doctor thing. She thinks she can cure everyone."
But before Sekula-Gibbs takes on the ills of Houston, a chorus of municipal voices suggests she better first address a few politically dysfunctional symptoms of her own.
Sekula-Gibbs was among five freshmen councilmembers sworn into office in January. She and Michael Berry are the new at-large members elected citywide. Joining them are Ada Edwards of District D (see "Adept Ada"), Addie Wiseman of District E and Carol Alvarado of District I. Berry and Sekula-Gibbs have no previous City Hall experience, while Wiseman and Alvarado have worked for other elected city officials. Edwards, in her role as a Third Ward-based community activist, has collaborated with municipal officials and their staffs on numerous issues for decades.
Edwards and Alvarado generally side with Mayor Brown. The other three are Republicans who mostly vote with the conservative bloc. Sekula-Gibbs's grandstanding role has been shared at times by Berry. He recently enraged black supporters by declaring he wanted to run for mayor and by voting against a largely ceremonial resolution to support a commission on reparations for descendants of slaves. State Representative Sylvester Turner, a former Berry backer and mayoral aspirant himself, denounced the councilman as a traitor. Nation of Islam minister Quanell X said he was publicly revoking Berry's "ghetto pass."
By contrast, Shelley is just gunning for the city's top doc job. She goes to great pains to make sure everyone knows she's the only doctor on the 15-member body. "As a physician" is one of her favorite introductory clauses. Since running for office on a "healthy Houston" platform, she's hit the city's Department of Health and Human Services with a blizzard of memos and requests that include asking that it prepare slideshows and PowerPoint presentations for her.
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