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Field Day

The clouds over Moody Park made the midday ceremony more bearable than the average outdoor summer function. Barely breaking a sweat, Mayor Bob Lanier and wife Elyse arrived all agrin and ascended a set of portable steps to take their usual front-row seats on-stage with the other designated celebrities. Sticking to a script as tightly choreographed as a Ronald Reagan press briefing, all read their prepared speeches about the park's grand reopening and posed for the two official photographs that would commemorate the event.

For someone who prefers a low, if not invisible, public profile, Parks and Recreation director Bill Smith was surprisingly animated. He even deviated from the speech penned by one of the many marketing specialists in his department, credited everyone he could credit and thanked everyone he could thank, and though the bespectacled Smith spoke in somewhat of a dull monotone, his point was clear -- the city had spent $2 million to overhaul Moody's ball fields, walking trails, paving and lighting, and today was the glorious unveiling.

Well, actually, more than $2.5 million, when the generous, no-bid design contract with architectural firm Clark Condon and Associates is included. But, to pose a question considered many times since Smith took office, who's counting?

Inarguably, the city's Parks and Recreation Department has come a long way since Lanier took office in 1992. Prior to his arrival, a succession of mayors for whom parks were an afterthought had squeezed the budget dry, leaving little funding for basic necessities like maintenance. Lanier placed the revitalization of the city's parks near the top of his agenda, increasing the department's budget by more than 63 percent, reinstating bond money that had been diverted elsewhere and launching ambitious recreation and redevelopment programs.

And the parks are better for it. A long-neglected symbol of the city's indifference in the heart of the near north-side barrio, Moody Park was once a veritable war zone better known for drug dealing and the infamous 1978 riot on its grounds. Now it stands as a testimonial to changed priorities, with an Olympic-sized swimming pool and other amenities still to come.

But beneath the Parks Department's shiny new exterior -- carefully packaged and sold by its 50-strong marketing staff -- there's a darker side that hearkens back to the less glorious past, when its dealings were often just a revelation away from scandal. It's a department that has dramatically exceeded its budget since 1993, where fiscal restraint has been replaced by a desire to get things done quickly -- no matter the cost; where friends and associates are rewarded with jobs and contracts; where arrogance has bred carelessness about the rules; and where people who speak out about their bending or breaking are threatened or punished for their disloyalty.

The Press interviewed more than 25 current and former Parks employees for this story, as well as a number of others who have done business with the department. Most would not go on the record, citing fear of reprisal. "A lot of us are afraid to say anything because of retaliation," says one employee with more than ten years on the payroll. "Morale is at an all-time low."

Bill Smith himself refused repeated requests for an interview, instead designating spokeswoman Susan Christian to respond to questions about him and his department. At one point, the Press faxed Smith a list of allegations that should have taken half an hour to answer. Eight hours later, Christian faxed back a terse, carefully crafted single sheet of replies. The excessive caution about the director apparently runs so deep that a Press request for a copy of Smith's Moody Park speech was never honored -- even though the event had already passed.

To a great extent, the Parks Department reflects the personality of Bill Smith, a political appointee whose primary responsibility is to execute the orders of Lanier and Jimmie Schindewolf, Smith's former boss in the Public Works and Engineering Department. In exchange, he's given free rein to run the parks the way a former director of the Houston Contractors Association and Public Works yes-man knows how. "He just isn't a parks man," says a former member of the Parks Board, the nonprofit adjunct to the department that serves as a bank for various projects. "He's a contractor. He knows sidewalks and concrete and mowing."

In fact, the department looks more like a subsidiary of Public Works these days than its own entity. Sara Culbreth, who now oversees the department's budget and finances, was shifted from Public Works late last year. Two recent hires in Smith's own office, Mike Huddle and Brandi Smith (no relation), likewise came from Public Works, and are still being paid by their old department. "We're just an extension of Public Works," says one executive staffer.

 

And that, says the staffer, defines Bill Smith's role with the Parks Department: "Answering to the mayor and Schindewolf is a full-time job."

Back in the late 1970s and early '80s, when the Parks Department's finances were a mess and dead people were on the payroll, the department had a reputation as a dumping ground for political hacks and others deemed deserving of being put out to pasture. To this day, finding people who agree on the details -- especially the roots of the problems -- is as difficult as locating anyone who admits they were actually part of it. But former employee Steve Brooks, who now works for a transportation consulting firm in Virginia, confirms the basic fact that kept the department moribund. "There seemed to be a lot of deadwood because of political appointments," Brooks says.

In 1983, Mayor Kathy Whitmire decided to oust director Jim Hart in the wake of a near-revolt by Parks Board members fed up with the status quo. After a national search, Whitmire named Ohio state parks director Don Olson and charged him with instituting sweeping changes. Olson revamped the department's finances, in particular extricating them from those of the Parks Board, and brought in Roy Witham, his former deputy, to manage the budget.

Not that there was enough to manage successfully. Generally regarded with mixed feelings by parks boosters, Olson did a creditable job with what he had but wasn't politic enough to get a much-needed budget increase. "He was holding the department together with baling wire," says a former associate.

Though he survived the Whitmire administration, Olson never established the alliances necessary to gain a foothold under Lanier. He ended up on the wrong side of the powerful Friends of Hermann Park, which included Elyse Lanier, socialite Barbara Hurwitz and some of their good friends, as well as other citizens' groups. In mid-1993, Olson gracefully accepted a transfer to the Zoo, which he now directs.

As Whitmire had done, Lanier assembled a search committee to find Olson's replacement. In the meantime, he named Bill Smith acting director. Smith, who had been overseeing various construction projects under Schindewolf, the mayor's co-chief of staff and Public Works director, had no parks experience but could manage the day-to-day administrative affairs until a permanent director was found.

The process of finding a replacement for Olson churned along for four months as the group whittled down the initial field of more than 100 to a manageable pool. Though many of the applicants had the management credentials to do the job, the committee's main objective, according to committee members, was to hire a parks professional who understood the field.

"We were very clear about that," says one. "We wanted someone with a vision for the system, not someone subject to the whims of elected officials."

As acting director, Smith sat in on the initial committee meetings. But rumors began circulating that Smith himself was a candidate, and he soon stopped showing up. Eventually, he submitted a resume and came for what another committee member described as a "courtesy interview." But the committee stuck by its priorities, narrowing the field to four, all from out of state. When the verdict came in, all but one committee member cast their lots with the commissioner of city parks in Queens, New York, Oliver Spellman. They passed their recommendation to Lanier.

Shortly thereafter, the mayor announced the appointment of the new Parks and Recreation director -- Bill Smith. According to the mayor, he got a dual recommendation for both Spellman and Smith passed to him by Jimmie Schindewolf, who had been peripherally involved with the committee. Lanier decided to go with the guy he knew. "The other fella had done more work in parks," he acknowledges. "Smith, on the other hand, was doing a good job in taking hold of the department and getting done what we needed done."

And all things being equal, Lanier followed his standard policy of trying to promote from within. "If the qualifications are in my judgment substantially equal, I uniformly go for the person that's worked for the city," he explains.

The decision didn't sit so well with many on the committee, however, who felt that they'd invested four months of good-faith effort in a sham process. Even prior to the final cut and interviews, the grapevine was abuzz that Smith would get the nod. "We'd heard that, yes," says a committee member. "We'd just hoped it wasn't true."

Especially galling to some was the fact that Smith had pronounced himself disinterested in the post at a meeting of the Parks executive staff. In his written statement to the Press, Smith admitted making the comment, but claimed that he was subsequently asked by the search committee to submit his resume for consideration.

 

Whether or not Smith's version jibes with history, the results of his tenure haven't inspired those who know what a parks professional could have brought to the job. Gary Woods, a former Southwestern Bell employee who worked extensively with the Parks Department hustling grants for tree planting and inventory projects, backed the choice of Smith in the beginning. But as time passed, and most of the grants he'd successfully won were lost through neglect and indifference, Woods' opinion changed. "My defense at the time was, well, if he's a good administrator, we have the expertise here in Parks," he says. "I never thought I would back up on that.

"I'm not shooting bullets at anybody, but Bill does not really understand what a park is for."

Bob Lanier was anxious to move forward quickly with two of his pet projects, the massive Parks to Standard program and the renovation of Miller Outdoor Theatre. The problem was, the money was lacking, though it was slated to become available from various sources over the next several years. Bill Smith's transgression was to point this out. In order to free up money for additional Parks to Standard expenses, Smith wrote in a December 1994 memo to the mayor, about $900,000 would have to be pulled from funding for the Miller job.

Lanier's first reply was brief and to the point. He regarded the Parks to Standard funding as available. In addition, he wrote, "I don't agree with deferring $900,000 on Miller Theatre. Let's get this ready to go."

When Smith asked again via memo for a clarification of the financing, Lanier's response came with a distinct edge: "I thought I made myself clear that on the Parks to Standard program I want to build it as quickly as we can design it and get it done," he wrote. "If that's not clear, please treat this memorandum as making it clear."

That may have been the first and last time Smith questioned the mayor on fiscal matters. After all, he'd been chosen to get things done, not quibble about money. "What I told Parks was, I want [projects] to happen," Lanier says. "You make them happen, and I'll take care of the budget. I would no more have waited a year [on a project] because of what some sheet of paper said than I would have flown."

Smith's momentary lapse in obedience notwithstanding, the director has generally proceeded according to Lanier's plan. At a meeting of the executive staff shortly after his appointment, Smith told the assemblage that while Don Olson's philosophy was to balk if a project would bust the budget, he had a different approach. "When Bill Smith came onboard, he said he was not going to tell the mayor that there was no money to do the job," says a former employee. "He was gonna do the job, then ask for the money."

And ask he did, repeatedly. In November, 1993, within a month of landing the permanent job, Smith announced he didn't have enough cash in the budget to cover expenses through the end of the fiscal year the following June. Council appropriated more than $1 million, but Smith burned through that. By June 30, the department had overspent its original budget by almost $3 million.

The free spending continued: more than $4 million over budget in fiscal year 1995, another $2.2 million in 1996. Each time, with Lanier's backing, the Council reached into city coffers and dredged up the difference. After all, the cause was worthy -- programs for the kids, for the community.

The constant overruns did not escape the notice of either the Finance and Administration Department or the Council's fiscal affairs committee, however. In response to the projected deficits in 1995, Finance and Administration officials and others met with Parks staff and helped institute spending controls. That June, during the annual budget debate, Smith went to City Hall and assured Council that he'd keep to the budget boundaries. By October, the controller's office reported that he was heading for the red again.

The fiscal affairs committee met several times with Smith to discuss the department's finances. Councilmember Joe Roach, who sits on the committee, says Council supported Lanier's parks initiatives but was concerned about the budgetary checks and balances. "That department had so much pressure to succeed quickly that that was a problem," Roach says.

Each time, Smith had something or someone else to blame: an unexpected number of seasonal employees, faulty calculations from his staff. And he professed ignorance of the shortfalls until after they had surfaced.

That's not how staffers recall it, however.
"He was aware, he was informed," says an employee familiar with the numbers. "Everybody in the Parks Department knew we didn't have enough money, for services and supplies especially."

 

Lanier is willing to shoulder the blame for the budgetary excesses. After all, Smith was only doing as directed, whether it be pushing construction and renovation schedules forward, or instituting new programs.

"If they're talking about him running over," the mayor says, "they ought to come fussing to me instead of him."

On the other hand, Smith paid little attention to the cost of those projects, taking advantage of the flexibility that can be found in city procedures that preclude the need for City Council approval: running up big overtime bills, hiring dozens of employees through temp agencies (at a cost of more than $700,000 in the 1996 budget year), declaring emergency and "sole-source" bids to avoid competitive bidding, and dipping into discretionary funds maintained by the Parks Board.

In one instance this summer, Smith wanted to avoid going before City Council on a bid for software to automate telephone reservations at Memorial Golf Course. After all, he told a small group of employees discussing the purchase, the councilmembers might ask annoying questions and force needless delay by sticking to the letter of city purchasing rules.

They might, for example, question the designation of the contract as "sole source," meaning that the manufacturer was the only one who could provide the product and therefore did not have to compete in a bidding process. Indeed, though for technical reasons the software in question had a leg up on the competition, about 40 companies across the country offer the same product.

Or they might have some other trifling hang-up -- ever since the privatization debacle this January, when a dubious deal to give away a couple of the city's public golf courses to a private operator cratered and left another bad smell at City Hall, Council had been quite sensitive about golf course matters.

So Smith arrived at a solution: circumvent the city's policies by splitting the bid. The first invoice would be for $5,000, the maximum allowed without having to run it by Council. The rest of the contract could be billed later, making it seem as though they were two different jobs. "He basically said he didn't want to have to wait for their approval," says a source who was present at the meeting.

Unfortunately, such a maneuver is a clear violation of the city's procurement procedure, which prohibits "bid-splitting to circumvent the dollar limitations, the competitive bidding process, materials management processing or City Council approval."

Not everyone would go along with the ruse, however. Ray Englehardt, who as assistant director of support services would ordinarily sign purchasing requisitions, refused to put his name on the one for the Memorial software because it was a split bid. So, says another source, "They went around him and got somebody else to sign it." That was deputy director of administration Sara Culbreth.

Englehardt declined to discuss his action, referring questions to department spokeswoman Susan Christian. In a written response to a question filtered through Christian, Smith says nothing of the sort ever happened. "I did not order the bid split," he wrote. Christian explained the substitution of Sara Culbreth's signature for Englehardt's by claiming that Culbreth had taken over all responsibility for signing requisitions prior to the incident. Three department employees disputed that assertion, however. "No question," says one. "It was Ray's to sign, and he wouldn't do it."

Finding a willing signatory wasn't the problem with a pair of contracts to install security systems at seven of the department's swimming pools in July 1995. In response to break-ins and vandalism at the pools, Smith declared the purchase an emergency, meaning he could bypass the formal bidding procedure required for contracts exceeding $10,000. City rules still mandate a few basic steps, however, including soliciting bids from at least three vendors.

But city records indicate that only two companies submitted bids, with Rollins Security Services declared the winner in both instances. The award dovetailed nicely with Smith's intent to give the contracts to Rollins, an intent he expressed before the process had even begun, according to a source familiar with the deals.

Another apparent violation of city procedures with the Rollins contracts might distress councilmembers, who have berated Smith for moving forward on projects without their formal approval, as required by city rules. An official RCA (Request for Council Approval) for one of the contracts was presented to Council on August 21, 1995. Records from the controller's office indicate, however, that Rollins was paid for the work on July 19 -- a month before Council said it was okay.

But when your primary responsibility is to carry out the mayor's agenda, such maneuvering is just a way to get the job done.

 

"That's the difference between a responsible director and a political director," says one disgruntled employee. "There are certain budgetary restraints you have to live under if you're a responsible director."

Nowhere has the willingness to throw money around been more evident than in the fledgling inner-city soccer league, which Lanier wanted established as his flagship youth sports program. As reported previously in the Press, the city hired a Dallas-based former pro soccer player, Doc Lawson, to run the program without a contract, alternately paying him through a temporary agency and the Parks Board. In the rush to reach inflated participation goals, the Parks Department hired a mass of coaches and game officials and spent lavishly on uniforms and shoes, giving them away without regard to ability to pay. Though not originally in the 1996 budget, the first full year of the program cost more than $600,000. This year the cost is projected at $789,000.

And that's only what's in the budget. Last month, fewer than three weeks into the new fiscal year, Smith wrote Mayor Lanier with a new discovery: to meet federal safety guidelines, the department would need an additional $128,339 for the inspection and maintenance of soccer goals, pushing the total cost of the program to more than $900,000.

Lanier says that he gave Smith the go-ahead to spend whatever was necessary to accommodate as many players as wanted to join the league. But the mayor probably had in mind a coupling of that edict with basic fiscal responsibility. The latter has been distinctly lacking, however -- on June 10, Recreation Division director Petty Hunter sent a memo to Smith addressing the soccer program's personnel costs (which was obtained by the Press, although it was not supplied by the department in response to an Open Records Act request).

"I have a sincere concern for the overtime hours of the soccer office personnel," Hunter wrote, noting that two employees along had racked up almost $27,000 in overtime last year.

Such high labor costs proved "ineffective management in the youth soccer office," Hunter continued, concluding that "these expenditures leave us both vulnerable, and accordingly we should meet to discuss this matter."

Ironically, prior to Lanier's decision to create his own youth soccer league, another one had been functioning and thriving in some of Houston's poorer neighborhoods. Soccer Start, part of a nationwide network of inner-city soccer programs, had registered 1,700 players by the spring of 1994. Organized by Les Haulbrook, president of the Bay Area Youth Soccer Association, Soccer Start had followed a time-tested model for such programs -- grow them slowly over time, utilizing existing resources to minimize costs. In fact, Soccer Start hadn't cost the city a dime. "I never went to the mayor and [asked for] money," says Haulbrook, "because I didn't think it was fair to the taxpayers."

Haulbrook worked with Bill Smith on the program, even presenting a five-year plan that summer. But the evolution of Soccer Start didn't meet Lanier's timetable for instant success, so Lawson was hired and the spending spree began. Soccer Start was abandoned, migrating to Galveston and other nearby cities, where it's alive and kicking.

But soccer is far from the sole source of the department's chronic financial crunch. Smith has also implemented other big-bucks budget busters that weren't in the original fiscal plans, including the Funday in the Parks program, the weekly kids carnival that travels from park to park throughout the city. The brainchild of Bob Borachoff, who owns Epic Special Events, Funday was designed to encourage families back into the parks once they've been reclaimed. Borachoff pitched the idea to the mayor, who, with the encouragement of wife Elyse, bit.

Borachoff and Lanier worked out a deal: Funday would get $430,000 a year from the city, and Epic would also get to keep most of the sponsorship (more than $400,000 since Funday's inception) and concession revenue. Of the city's contribution, $60,000 was to come from the mayor's cut of city arts money, and the other $370,000 would come from the Parks Department. Though Parks staffers had reservations about how the already overtaxed budget might absorb such a hit, the Laniers insisted.

Elyse, whose hand in Parks affairs has been heavy since her husband's election, has helped add other line items to the budget, especially downtown beautification projects. Smith recently bragged during a meeting of downtown boosters that the department changes out 72,000 bedding plants -- one of Elyse's initiatives -- four times a year. Though the cost in labor and materials of that effort are difficult to figure, they easily crack six figures.

The city also added to its share of the pricey Memorial Golf Course renovation, accumulating substantial overtime charges in order to meet an artificial deadline for the course's reopening -- one month prior to the 1995 elections.

 

Lanier argues that it's worth the money to get programs such as the youth soccer league and Funday up and running quickly. "I have flexibility in the budget to put the money where it's needed as long as I don't exceed the [city] budget overall. If you look at our overall budget, we came in under budget every year we've been here."

That might be fine if all the money to cover the excesses came from other sources (and presuming other city services don't suffer in return). But at least some of the money for the soccer program and other mayoral initiatives came at the expense of other Parks endeavors. A foundation grant for a sorely needed addition to the urban forestry staff was abandoned for want of a match. Employees complain of short staffing and an inability to obtain basic supplies and other necessities to do their jobs.

And advocates for parks not in the Parks to Standard program still wait for long overdue improvements because the department cries poverty. "We've been understaffed all summer," says Becky Sallens, who is active in the Charlton Parks Advisory Council. Sallens and others have fought for years to improve their neighborhood park, which abuts the Glenbrook Park Golf Course in southeast Houston, but Charlton can't seem to make the priority list. Many days, Sallens says, "the only person on duty at the recreation center is the custodian."

When Henry Gray arrived for work at Shady Lane Park on the northeast side on Friday, June 21, he had no reason to suspect that he was under investigation. Gray, who manages Shady Lane's recreation center, did wonder why custodian Henry Lavador had left cleaning equipment unattended outside the building, but he figured Lavador had been distracted by other business. So before Gray attacked the day's stack of paperwork, he decided to sweep the walkways and tidy the grounds a bit.

About an hour later, Lavador reappeared in the company of Joe Cochran, who heads the Parks Department's security division. Cochran informed Gray that he was to report immediately to 330 Rusk, a cement bunker downtown that houses the Public Works Department's security police. There, Raymond Gonzalez would ask him a few questions.

Gray called his union representative, Diane Gutierrez, who negotiated a delay till after the weekend so she could be present. But a few hours later, Cochran informed him that he had to hustle downtown or face disciplinary action. Gutierrez managed to make it anyway, but when Gonzalez ushered Gray into a small room to begin his interrogation, she was barred from the proceedings.

For about an hour, the Public Works interrogator asked Gray a number of questions about his whereabouts on certain dates and what he'd been doing in various places at various hours. How did Gonzalez know to ask? He'd been tailing Gray, he admitted.

Gray had answers to all the questions: He was discussing parks programs with members of the Parks Advisory Council. He went home to eat lunch. He was marketing the soccer program.

That evidently wasn't good enough, because one week later Gray received a letter from Bill Smith suspending him, with pay, until further notice. "I am placing you on 'relieved of duty' status pending the results of an investigation involving inappropriate conduct," Smith wrote.

The disciplinary action was all too familiar to Gray. In February, he and more than 30 other Parks employees had been reprimanded, suspended or fired for failing to properly market the mayor's pet soccer program. As reported in the Press, the employees took the fall for the disorganized program's weak registration numbers, which fell well short of projections -- despite official pronouncements to the contrary. Gray had led a group of more than a dozen before City Council to complain.

In addition, Gray had appealed his action, a "final warning" (though he had never been given any other type of warning), through official channels. On May 31, Yolanda Coroy, a hearing examiner for the Civil Service Commission, found that "a final reprimand in this case is inconsistent with sound judgment." Coroy ordered that the action be removed from Gray's files. Since the ruling, several other employees have had their actions overturned, including fired workers Brisket Howard and Anthony Valary.

Gray believes he's being retaliated against, both for beating the department in the hearing and speaking out publicly against the earlier punishments. He has reason to be suspicious: two days before his civil service victory, Gray received his annual performance evaluation, scoring an overall rating of "strong," which is defined as "exceeds the established performance standards."

 

Gray's suspension is currently under review, though it appears headed for another civil service hearing. But Gray is not optimistic about his long-term prospects with Parks. "I know that even if I win this, I'm gonna have to be on the lookout for another job," he says, "because it's not gonna stop."

Roy Witham and Lalitha Raman can relate to Gray's plight. In January, the Press exposed efforts to privatize two more of Houston's municipal golf courses, in the face of a Parks Department study showing the deal was bad for the city. Repeated assessments by Witham and Raman, who worked the city's budget numbers, found the same. That irked Smith, who suppressed the numbers for reasons he was never willing to discuss. When the facts came to light, embarrassing Smith and the department, Witham and Raman were punished. Witham was removed from his position as deputy director of administration and exiled to a small office at the Sharpstown Golf Course, where he officially became head of golf operations. Raman was moved to the Public Works and Engineering Department.

Neither Witham or Raman would speak to the Press. But Gene Hill, who worked under the two before retiring a few months ago, echoes the sentiment of many workers in the department when he criticizes Smith for the moves. "It was like treason for anyone to go against what he wanted to do, whether it was good for the department or not," says Hill. "He just got rid of them. It was retaliation, pure and simple."

On the other hand, if you happen to sit on Smith's good side, the director will go to great lengths to protect your interests. Earlier this year, for instance, he called a meeting of the grounds maintenance staff who work at parks in the city's northeast quadrant. More than 50 employees showed up. The primary topic of discussion was a pending sexual harassment complaint against one employee by more than a dozen others. According to three workers who were present, Smith declared that he backed the accused and that anyone who pursued the complaint would suffer the consequences. "He made it real clear that he'd better not hear anything else about it," says one, "or he'd put some disciplinary actions on you."

Smith denies threatening anyone at the meeting, not surprising since such coercion is a violation of city policy, not to mention state and federal law. Instead, he said in his written statement, "I informed this group that these rumors were thoroughly investigated by an outside department and proven to be unfounded."

That "outside department" was the city's Affirmative Action division. Among its responsibilities is to investigate sexual harassment charges against city employees. The employee relations section, which reviews such complaints, is headed by Deborah Douglas, a close friend of Smith's. According to one employee in the division, Douglas has taken a special interest in Parks Department cases.

Lenoria Walker, the division director, says she polled Douglas' staffers, who assured her that no such extra attention had been given to Parks cases by their boss. And Walker says it would be "very difficult" for Douglas to single-handedly influence the process. Still, several sexual harassment cases with far fewer complainants than the one Smith addressed resulted in firings.

Whether Smith was actively involved in squelching a sexual harassment case, evidence indicates he has meddled in other personnel matters. According to a number of employees, Smith has hired people without going through proper channels. In one instance -- the subject of much discussion among Parks staffers -- Bill Surber Jr. replaced Greg Washington as superintendent of aquatics. Washington, who had held the position for several years, was transferred to supervise community centers. Surber, the son of Smith's good friend Bill Surber Sr., was hired through a temp agency before being added to the permanent payroll.

In response to the allegation of favoritism, Smith wrote that the younger Surber was recommended to him based on previous swimming pool consulting work he'd done for the city. The position was posted as required by personnel guidelines, he wrote, contradicting the memories of several sources. In addition, he wrote, "I am not aware of any position that has been filled that was not in accordance with the Personnel Department's hiring procedures."

It's not always personal friends of Smith who get the breaks, even if coincidentally. After supervisor Carlos Paz and maintenance mechanic Danny Herrera were involved in separate vehicle accidents involving traffic violations, city rules precluded them from driving in city vehicles, including while on the job. While employees in similar straits are generally demoted to positions that don't require driving, Paz and Herrera stayed in their posts. Now, when they need to get to a site in the system, another employee chauffeurs them.

 

Susan Christian says that such escorts are rarely needed, since Paz and Herrera work primarily out of headquarters. But their co-workers say the two frequently visit sites in the field.

Smith may have had a special reason for lenience with Herrera and Paz -- his own pair of wrecks in city vehicles, one of which occurred on a foggy morning last November. In the driver's report he was required to file with the city, Smith wrote that he was inching his way into traffic at an intersection when a car clipped his front bumper before speeding off. The police weren't notified.

The other wreck took place on July 22, 1994 at 11:20 p.m. According to Smith's driver's report, it occurred when Smith "dropped cellular phone and got phone cord tangled up in steering wheel. While trying to regain control, vehicle hit nose of concrete median."

The police were not called to the scene. According to two sources, Smith managed to activate his phone and called someone to pick him up and get the 1993 Chevy Lumina to the shop. Bypassing the usual channels, Smith's car was repaired and returned -- within 24 hours. Neither the required "supervisor investigation report of vehicle accident" nor the incident report that accompanies the records of Smith's other fender- bender could be found. And Smith now says the accident occurred at 9 p.m. (while he was on official city business, of course), not 11:20, as it says on the original report of the accident -- which he signed.

It was last December 20, and the annual Parks Department Christmas party was in full swing. Inside the dated, low-slung building on South Wayside, employees congregated in small clusters in the hallways, eating finger sandwiches, dipping chips and gulping punch.

In the conference room behind Bill Smith's office, a smaller group had gathered. Some had brought gifts, a few in brown paper bags, others gaily wrapped to commemorate the season. Smith and his executive staff played the hosts; some of his old buddies from the Public Works and Engineering Department, along with representatives of various companies doing business with the department, enjoyed the spread. The conference room, as Smith's assistant Vicky Trahan had told the staff, was closed to most employees (though Trahan claims that unlike past years, this Christmas party the conference room was open to all).

The guests stayed between 20 minutes and an hour. When they left, their packages stayed behind.

It's a violation of city rules to accept gifts from people who do business with the city. Needless to say, Bill Smith (through his interpreter, Susan Christian) denies that he took any gifts, doesn't remember any gifts from party attendees at all, in fact.

Whether or not Smith held onto the booty, the separate party in the inner sanctum reinforced the feeling among employees that the Parks Department consists of two classes -- a privileged elite, and everybody else. And that's a feeling that has filtered into the community as well.

While some parks with well-connected supporters have reaped the benefits of the mayor's enthusiasm for rebuilding the system, supporters of less fortunate parks have heard plenty of promises in response to their pleas, but little action. In 1994, Emancipation Park volunteer George Gray (no relation to suspended employee Henry) helped organize a group of Parks Advisory Councils into what he calls the Council of Councils, a kind of super PAC that could deal collectively with the city on issues of mutual concern. The reason behind the move, as he explained in a letter to Council of Councils members, was because a number of parks volunteers felt that the department was "inaccessible to the individual citizens and the Advisory Council members of our city."

Gray's view has only hardened since the group first met more than two years ago. Several attempts to obtain budget and other information have yielded nothing to date, so irritating Gray that he announced the formation of a new group, Taxpayers Have a Right to Know. The purpose of the new group he says, is to monitor all Parks and Recreation activities, especially those involving money. "We want to talk about accountability," Gray says, noting in particular the department's inclination to spend a lot on showcase events rather than to alleviate staffing shortages.

The city's rush to expand the soccer program has left a similarly bitter aftertaste with a number of parents and volunteers. Adrian Musil, a coach at Southwest Park, wrote Mayor Lanier an angry letter after promised uniforms failed to materialize and other snafus led some of his kids to drop out. In his reply, Lanier promised Musil that Bill Smith would look into the matter and respond to him "in detail." The coach never heard from Smith. "I'm not getting any results at all," Musil says.

 

The department's reputation as unresponsive has spread outside the city limits. Pete Smith, grants administrator for the Texas Forest Service, has all but abandoned trying to help fund urban forestry projects after several frustrating experiences. "All of the program development projects started within the past few years by the Parks Department have been dropped for one reason or another, including a grant to add a senior forester to their staff," Smith wrote a local nonprofit. "We have focused our energies of late to developing the nonprofit segment of the community because the Parks Department has shown little interest in technical or financial assistance."

Even if the Parks Department were to deteriorate into the laughingstock of its worst years, Lanier's investment in Houston's parks will still have restored a measure of credibility to a system that had been considered one of the nation's most neglected. But the decision to keep the department a political agency run by a political appointee comes at a cost. All those millions spent on no-bid contracts, for example, might have been stretched a good deal further. And parks advocates lament the departure of longtime employees who have retired in disgust or who, like Lalitha Raman, were forced out. "It's sad," says Gene Hill, who himself retired after the golf-course privatization collapse and the punishment of Raman and Roy Witham.

Not only might much more have been accomplished by a professional director with a vision, but the department's budget overruns and internal conflicts leave Lanier's precious programs vulnerable after he leaves office.

"When [a program] is politically driven," says area youth soccer leader Les Haulbrook, "you always run the risk that when the politicians change, the program dies."

The long-term view isn't Bill Smith's concern, however. When Lanier steps down, Smith will probably follow. And when he does, as with most good hirelings who faithfully carry out orders and take the heat when it comes down, there will probably be a nice government or contracting job waiting for him.


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