Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

Houston's sweet-and-sour inaugural

A long time ago, God supposedly decreed, "Let there be light."

At the city's inaugural festivities last week, Sunday school teacher and new mayor Bill White decreed, "Let there be civic sweetness and synchronized traffic lights."

Both are undeniably good ideas, but if it was all that easy, one wonders why it hadn't been accomplished a lot sooner. The public perception of the outgoing Lee Brownadministration was one of disinterested incompetence, but had the thought of timing those reds, greens and yellows really not occurred to his minions at Traffic and Transportation? When a TV reporter checked with those folks, they expressed puzzlement and claimed White hadn't talked to them in advance about his sweeping pronouncement.

The new mayor celebrated Houston's status as the nation's leading "Diver-City," including the election of its first Muslim councilmember. But much of the adulation and relief evident at the reception for him at the exuberant postinaugural party had more to do with his promise to clean up the alleged mess left by the first African-American mayor in the city's history. White had also disposed of the city's first serious Latino mayoral contender in the December runoff, so that particular diversity frontier will have to wait for six years, presuming White gains his allotted three terms.

There were plenty of such mixed messages at the two-day downtown fiesta that rang in a lot of the new and a little of the old, including a stop-and-start train that had the kids squealing with delight -- but left more than a few adults wondering whether they were riding a $250 million Christmas toy. It did not escape notice that the express Metro buses ferrying elected officials back to City Hall for a ceremonial council meeting took a lot less time than the train did getting them to Miller Outdoor Theatre for the morning swearing-in.

Perhaps the biggest Grinch of the season was antirail crusader Tom Bazan. He issued an affidavit demanding that the Harris County district attorney and the Texas attorney general prosecute Metro officials for violating state law in allowing folks to ride the trains for free during the first weekend of operation. Bazan accused Metro of squandering precious transit dollars that could have been used for bus service for "dependent, poor minority riders."

At least he didn't seek an injunction on Santa's unauthorized sleigh ride and use of illegal aliens (elves) as underpaid laborers.

The minister introducing White at the swearing-in could be excused for using the term "coronation" rather than inauguration. And while a former first lady, Elyse Lanier, was a sight for sore, New Year's-hungover eyes in a faux leopard-skin coat and bright blond hair, departing mayor Brown's spouse, Frances, was even more conspicuous by her absence. Moderator Steve Smith started to call out her name, then swallowed the words when he realized she was a no-show.

It was a fitting end to a six-year stretch in which educator Frances Brown had made it abundantly clear she had absolutely no interest in playing the role of civic first lady. During a mayoral trade junket to the Far East, a staffer recalls, she left her husband and wandered away from the dais at a public dinner, escorted by a city bodyguard for a spate of shopping in nearby stores.

In line with White's theme of inclusion, wide-eyed council newcomers and previously cantankerous veterans traded enough hugs and air kisses on the stage to make one wonder if a sexually transmitted disease team ought to be called out from the health department. But since Houston has one of the poorer big-city track records in such matters, it probably wouldn't have helped.

The most inexplicable holdover in White's new order is City Attorney Anthony Hall. He apparently will be staying on, possibly as chief administrative officer, despite several councilmembers' dislike of him.

White praised Hall as a source of institutional memory, an understatement for a man whose municipal tenure extends back before the prehistoric dawn of mayor Kathy Whitmire. If Jordy Tollett, the veteran City Hall cockroach and Convention and Visitors Bureau chief, and special events maven Susan Christiansurvive into the new era, they'll share the title of political Methuselah with Hall.

After The Insider congratulated Hall for his survivability, Hall responded somewhat defensively that he could have gone into the private sector and made millions of dollars. There are those who might have been willing to pay him more than that to leave.

New controller Annise Parker had earlier diluted the treacle with a dose of sour quotes in the Houston Chronicle warning that Hall could poison the new mayor's relations with council. It wasn't anything others haven't said previously, but in the new White-mandated lovefest, the comments seemed out of tune. Brown cornered her afterward to complain, and she paid her penance by sitting next to a smug-looking Hall during the council session. Hall made his continued Rasputin role clear by hovering at the left shoulder of White during his first news conference as mayor.

Freshly re-elected District C Councilman Mark Goldberg demonstrated the limits of his devotion to city duty by filing to run in the GOP spring primary for justice of the peace. If he wins next November, council will have to appoint a replacement.

Position 5 Councilman Michael Berry indicated that he's inclined to accept his council salary this time around after turning it down for the previous two years to show his disdain for professional politicians. Maybe family breadwinner and attorney Nandy Berry can now take that long, long vacation she richly deserves.

After the meeting, District I Councilwoman Carol Alvaradoled her admirers to a reception at the Downtown Aquarium, which looked like a bad imitation of a Gilligan's Island set. Everybody there made a bigger to-do over her new appointment as mayor pro tem than The Insider can remember being accorded to any previous holder of that mostly ceremonial position. After all the sanitized proclamations by White, Alvarado introduced a refreshingly partisan note by praising her former boss, Democratic Congressman Gene Green, and urging support for him if he has to run in a redrawn congressional district.

In the crowd, Justice of the Peace Al Green hit up folks for evaluations of his chances against Congressman Chris Bell in the Democratic primary.

With the comforting aroma of political ambition and skullduggery on the rise, The Insider finally began to relax.

Once again everything was just right with the world.

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