Kingwood Legal Follies
Mayor Lee P. Brown has been careful in his freshman year to couch his policies in a "Be Like Bob" mode. After capitalizing on his predecessor's undeclared support to win the office, Brown wanted to inherit Bob Lanier's phenomenal public popularity and appear to carry on Lanier's programs, while building on them.
A notable exception is the Brown administration's recent decision to reopen perhaps the most antagonistic episode of Lanier's six years in office: the city's annexation of Kingwood. City Attorney Anthony Hall launched lawsuits against the Kingwood area Municipal Utility District directors to reclaim $675,000. Those MUD directors had siphoned the money into the antiannexation battle, with some of it going to political consultants and advertising. Randy Porteau, a hard-line assistant city attorney described by associates as a "legal bulldog," is credited with selling Hall on the Kingwood suit.
Indications are that the mayor now regrets signing on to the plan, one that Lanier and his city attorney, Gene Locke, had specifically rejected during Lanier's closing months in office.
"I think it's still a matter of learning, as far as the mayor goes, on what issues might hit the fan and what issues wouldn't, and whose judgment to take," says an administration source.
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Another City Hall observer believes Brown blundered into the suit by accident. "I think there's bad blood between those down-the-food-chain lawyers in the legal department, particularly Porteau, and the Kingwood lawyers. They got Hall to go with it, maybe he briefed Brown on it, and the next thing you know the horse is out of the barn and Brown is asking, 'What have they got me into?' "
Lanier won the annexation battle but became the target of voters' jeers and criticism for the first time in his tenure. He also had to fight a rear-guard action to stall area legislators, including state Senator Jon Lindsay, in their push for state laws to repeal the annexation. Given the bitterness, Lanier says the last thing the city needed was a divisive legal fight with the MUD directors.
"We felt like under the law these fellows had probably exceeded their authority on some of these expenditures," comments the former mayor from his home, where he is recuperating from a recent viral infection that required hospitalization. "On the other hand, looking at what it would cost us to collect it, and whether or not they still had any of the money, and the resentment it would cause, it was our judgment not to go forward." Lanier says his top priority was building better city relations with Kingwood.
Locke, the former city attorney who is now at Mayor, Day, Caldwell & Keeton, confirms he recommended against the lawsuit. However, he stressed he is not criticizing City Attorney Hall for authorizing the litigation. Brown and Hall were traveling in Asia and unavailable for comment.
Lanier believes Brown is now "trying to find a way to bring this thing to a graceful conclusion." The former mayor recalls that a school of thought within the city legal department is "that if you have a claim, you have to pursue it." He says he and Locke weighed the various factors and decided the costs to the city were not worth the potential financial gains.
However, Lanier doesn't buy the argument that the city's lawsuit is responsible for revived efforts in the state legislature to pass antiannexation laws.
"I can't tell that that issue was ever sleeping," chuckles the former mayor. "I think that issue is alive and will be debated in the context of finding an acceptable middle ground. I think each side has decided, to some extent, they can't completely run over each other."
Late last month, City Council gave the legal department six weeks to settle the Kingwood litigation or it will vote on whether to drop the suit. Undeterred, Hall added the Kingwood Volunteer Fire Department as a defendant because it received $375,000 from MUD directors. Hall's move drew Council ridicule because the city had already paid the volunteer fire department $2 million in compensation for property seized by the city through its eminent domain power.
A Real Nut Case
Before City Attorney Hall left on his Asian trip with Brown, he circulated a far less controversial legal opinion to City Council. Rob Todd, Councilman for Kingwood and one of Hall's most outspoken critics, had asked Hall to determine if it is legal for citizens to gather pecans that fall from trees on city rights of way.
"Severed fruits and nuts which come to rest in the public street right of way are ostensibly the property of the City," declared Hall. He went on in his rather pedantic style to advise Councilmembers that such goodies produced by Mother Nature are known as "fructus naturales." Since the city does not cultivate pecan trees for their crop, reasons Hall, "the City permits the general public to take and enjoy its fructus naturales, including the severed fruits, nuts and other byproducts of trees, which fall in its public streets' rights of way irrespective of where the producing trees are located."
If the city attorney just stuck to issuing opinions like that rather than trying to pick the fructus naturales from Kingwood's tree, the mayor would have fewer political worries.
Lee Man for G-Man?
A politico close to Mayor Brown reacts to our speculation about an Al Gore-Lee Brown ticket ["The Wooden Indian Ticket?," February 4] with the assertion that Brown badly wants a position in the future administration -- but not as vice president.
According to this source, the mayor repeatedly stated his ambition to crown his law enforcement career with the FBI directorship. By this account, President Bill Clinton gave Brown the title of Drug Czar as a consolation prize after passing him over for the FBI's top job, which went to Louis Freeh. In retrospect, Clinton may regret that decision. Freeh became an odd man out in the administration by opposing Attorney General Janet Reno's decision not to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate campaign finance scandals.
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