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"Some of the criticism's legitimate because we have had a mess downtown," admits the mayor. "But I don't know a way, unless my critics can tell me, to rebuild a street without tearing it up. I think the critical thing is we've done in four years what it normally takes ten or 12 years to do."
Brown then goes on to tout the task force that "meets every week to coordinate it." He doesn't mention that the task force was formed only after the construction fiasco had reached crisis proportions.
"It's kind of like remodeling your home while you're still living in it," observes the mayor lightly. "It's inconvenient, but when it's finished you'll like it."
Brown also refuses to touch on the issue of his over-reliance on his administration's twin towers, Haines and Hall. Told that many current and former members of his administration are mystified by the fact that Haines is still on board after all the budget miscues, the mayor offers a half-smile.
"No. 1, he must be doing what I ask him to do, or he wouldn't be kept around," says Brown. "If I was dissatisfied I'd make a change. I'm the one who is ultimately accountable to make sure things get done in this city, and if I felt things were not getting done I'd make a change. I think that speaks for itself."
It does, but the message says clearly that Lee Brown values loyalty and obedience above performance.
To those who say he can't make tough decisions, Brown cites what may be his administration's signal achievement: the construction of light rail.
"I don't know of any world-class city that doesn't have a rail system," says Brown. "Houston has to have one. My vision is this is just the beginning, that there will also be commuter rail to bring people in and out of the city, particularly considering that our population will double in the next two decades."
The mayor, subordinates say, believes his previous government experience is not given the respect it is due by voters or the media.
"I've run more complex organizations than this city," says Brown dismissively, in response to a question about the well-documented problems with his staff turnover and infighting.
"I have been the police commissioner of New York City, with almost twice as many employees as I have now and bigger than the city of Houston's budget. I worked as a cabinet member with a $14 billion budget.
"I've been successful at every job I've had, so I come into this job with a wealth of experience, managing people, complex organizations. That experience has served this city well, which is evident by the outcome."
As for the projected budget shortfalls, he says Houston has done better than other public entities in coping with the tough economic times. "I don't think anyone could have projected it," says Brown of the drop in sales tax revenue that created the current budget crunch.
"I've looked at it very carefully. If it was just Houston, then I'd be much more concerned than I am, because it's also Dallas and Austin and San Antonio, the school district, every place that relies on sales tax."
Brown's police background has made him more sensitive to the problems at the Houston crime lab than some of his administration's other difficulties.
"I want to find out why it happened, and what needs to be done to keep it from ever happening again," declares the mayor. He remembers how he once proudly gave visitors from other cities tours of the lab when he was police chief and is "very disappointed it's in such disarray." Brown says he'll wait for the results of outside investigators to determine if there is any culpability on the part of HPD Chief C.O. Bradford for the lab's problems.
Brown has a number of loose strings left to tie up before leaving office, not the least of which is balancing a final budget that's sure to be a political battle with council in an election year. But he's already looking beyond to a quieter time, when he expects to teach at a Houston-area university and turn his attention to writing a textbook on his beloved "neighborhood-oriented policing" technique, which he pioneered in Houston in the '80s.
University environments "give you the ability to sit back and think and write," says the mayor. He's considering joining Sam Houston State University's criminal justice department.
"I don't intend to run for anything else," he says flatly. "I do intend to be here, and I do intend to be involved in the life of this city."
His name may never be on a ballot again, but after six years of refusing to recognize the essential role of politics at City Hall, Brown seems downright eager to get involved in the upcoming municipal election.
"I intend to take a position in every race that comes up," declares the mayor, who was never so enthusiastic about his own campaigns. "Not right now, but at the right time I'll take a position."
At the top of the hit list is the councilman Brown calls Dr. No: Bruce Tatro, who is running for city controller.