Tiff at the Midtown T.I.F.
The recent resignation of the development director of the Midtown Redevelopment Board has sparked concern on the part of at least one board member that participants in the public-private agency are using it as a vehicle for personal benefit. Allen Crosswell, the former development director appointed by then-mayor Bob Lanier, denies he profited from his tenure with Midtown, but indicates he's grown disenchanted with the board itself.
Midtown is one of a number of such districts that have sprung up to encourage the development of particular areas of town. City property taxes are frozen for 30 years in the area, and subsequent increases in tax value go to a trust fund controlled by the T.I.F. to finance urban improvements. The district is also empowered to sell bonds to finance its initial efforts until the rise in property value generates trust-fund income. Midtown's boundaries encompass 600 acres between the south end of downtown and the medical center.
The ethics issue surfaced last Thursday at the T.I.F.'s monthly board meeting, when member William Paul Thomas, the district director for state Senator Rodney Ellis, asked Midtown chairman Doug Williams for the reasons Crosswell resigned.
"I don't know why," answered Williams. "I think he wants to remove the possibility of conflict."
Thomas then suggested to fellow trustees that they enact a mandatory moratorium for departing board members before they can do business related to the activities of the tax increment finance district. "My concern is that if Crosswell goes and does business within Midtown, as development chair he has done things that may connect things favorable to him," Thomas told the group. "I would like to suggest that no former board member be able to do business with this board for six months to a year."
Crosswell says he has developed some real-estate relationships that include Midtown properties, but says he left Midtown largely because he had accomplished most of the goals for the group since Lanier asked him to become development director six years ago. He says that far from profiting from his relationship, he volunteered substantial amounts of time to the unpaid assignment and had to forgo at least one sizable real-estate commission involving the T.I.F.
Crosswell was also critical of the board, characterizing many of the members as do-nothing appointees who drop by the meetings for lunch but don't do their homework or understand the issues. Crosswell, whose father, Holcombe, was replaced as Metro chair by Mayor Brown, says he's become increasingly disturbed with Brown's tenure as mayor, though he did not go into specifics.
As for Thomas's request for new measures to keep board members from using their positions for personal profit, chairman Williams suggested that Midtown general counsel Bob Randolph review the issues.
Randolph could certainly shed some light on that issue, since he's something of an expert. The Vinson & Elkins attorney's own questionable business interaction, involving his role as Midtown's lawyer, was documented in an article by Press writer Brian Wallstin ["Midtown Jamboree," November 28, 1996]. Randolph organized the creation of the district in 1994, and orchestrated the annexation of an additional area that just happened to include a 113,000-square-foot parcel owned by a group of Vinson & Elkins lawyers -- including Randolph. Randolph owns another piece of Midtown property near the former Bland Cadillac site that is currently undergoing massive reworking into a townhouse-apartment district. At the time, Randolph told Wallstin: "What you would characterize and suggest as a conflict of interest is a common interest."
That common interest will get a little more tangible later this month, when Midtown is hoping to become the first T.I.F. in Houston to sell bonds under its own name. The $8 million from the sale will be used to assist developers in the area by building sidewalks, financing infrastructure and in general paying for things that will benefit the development of Midtown -- and increase the land values of those wise enough to own property there.
The More Things Change...
Last year, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee ahad one of the highest staff turnover rates in Congress, and the revolving door hasn't slowed down one bit. Lee, whose penchant for using staffers as chauffeurs and personal attendants was documented in a Press cover story ["Driving Miss Sheila," February 20, 1997], has seen her Washington and district staffs virtually turn over yet again in the last three months.
On the Capitol front, Lee special assistant Tom Combs has joined Beaumont Congressman Nick Lampson's staff. Lee's legislative assistants Jennifer Leach and Ken Nealy moved on, as did press spokesman John Brennan and systems manager Lillie Coney. The Congresswoman has also chewed her way through two schedulers in the last 45 days. Still hanging in there is chief of staff Leon Buck -- and legislative assistant Matt Eggers.
One of the departed staffers said it's the same old story. "She's still a difficult person, and nothing's really changed, for the better or the worse." The staff turnover has continued to undermine constituent services, says this source, both in the D.C. and district offices.
On the home front, Lee case managers Ada Edwards and Annie Pena have left, as has receptionist Deandra Jack. Things have gotten so bad, says a former employee, that Lee has pressed her campaign manager, Gerald Womack, into service as acting district director.
Asked why the high turnover rate continues, Womack explained that not everyone wants to work as hard as Congresswoman Lee.
"Because she works so hard, we are pressured with work from other Congress areas," claimed Womack. "A lot from Tom DeLay, Ken Bentsen, other Congresspeople. And we've got to send out those letters saying, 'I'm sorry, you're not in our district.' "
The continuing staff turmoil has kept alive rumors that Councilman Jew Don Boney will challenge Lee in the Democratic congressional primary two years from now.
"If he can get his hands on some money it would be a hell of a race," a former Lee staffer says of a Boney/Lee face-off. "I don't know if he's any more pleasant than she is, but I could see the Lanier crowd getting behind him and raising some money just to thumb their noses at her."
The Hidden Cost of Model-Netics
A year ago, The Insider delved into the mysteries of Model-Netics, the corporate psychobabble created by American General's former chairman Harold Hooks and foisted on the Houston Independent School District by Superintendent Rod Paige.
Billed as a management language with 151 models, or glyphs, as its alphabet, the program requires 20 one-hour training sessions to indoctrinate bureaucrats to the point where they can parrot slogans like "northbound train" [meaning "get with the program"] or "cruel sea" ["terminated for the organizational good"] back and forth at each other. For the last year, the district has been busy training administrators down to the principal level.
Both Paige and his chief of staff, Susan Sclafani, are Model-Netics devotees who carry Model-Netics memory-joggers that allow them to constantly brush up on the rather esoteric terminology of the program.
When queried by The Insider last year, HISD spokesman Terry Abbott characterized the acquisition of the program as a real bargain for the district, with Model-Netics provider Main Events Management, a subsidiary created by Hooks, donating $862,000 worth of services for a bargain-basement $161,310.
But in addition to the money paid to Main Events Management, there are also the salaries of ten staff members in charge of training fellow bureaucrats to consider. According to a district source, the salaries come to a cool $470,974, a rather lavish outlay of the district's scarce resources.
There may also be new worlds for Model-Netics to conquer close at hand. Former American General executive Al Haines is now Mayor Lee Brown's second-in-command, and is a big believer in Hooks's brainchild. He has not ruled out implementing Model-Netics in the city bureaucracy.
Got a gripe? Want to vent? Have some documents to share? Call The Insider at (713) 624-1483, fax him at (713) 624-1496 or e-mail him at Insider@ houstonpress.com.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.