During a recent budget workshop, Houston City Councilman Mark Goldberg questioned Parks and Recreation Director Roksan Okan-Vick about the costs of a new logo the bureaucrat had ordered for the cash-strapped department from a local design studio.
The new design is a three-lobed leaf inside a square, the sort of basic image that the artistically challenged might create using a cheap stencil. It replaces a more elaborate logo -- the city skyline draped by a willow branch -- ordered by her predecessor, Oliver Spellman, in 1999.
Goldberg prefaced his question by noting the director had told him the previous month that the cost of the logo was being paid for by the nonprofit Friends of Hermann Park. That's the nonprofit group that Okan-Vick, an architect and native of Istanbul, Turkey, had previously directed before getting Mayor Lee Brown's nod as parks chief. The councilman then thanked the Friends for helping to save the city money.
To that Okan-Vick sat silent, so the councilman then asked about the costs of changing the park signage to accommodate the new logo, and was assured by the director they would be minimal.
What Goldberg didn't know, and the director chose not tell him, was that she had already approved payments out of the parks budget to Minor Design Inc. to the tune of $24,500. According to department sources, the amount was deliberately set just below the $25,000 threshold that would require disclosure and the specific approval of City Council. The documentation for the payments explicitly mentions work on the logo in addition to other management consulting tasks.
According to city controller spokeswoman Janice Evans, the payment had been broken into two checks, with the larger $15,750 cashed in April and the remainder issued earlier this month. City records indicate the second check has not yet been cashed. Okan-Vick had also employed Minor Design previously on behalf of the Friends of Hermann Park when she was executive director there. Asked later whether she and firm principal Craig Minor are friends, the director carefully answered, "Not outside of our business relationship, no."
The director defends the logo expenditure as a small part of a bigger study "refocusing the department on the delivery of its core services and on a streamlined business plan which required us as much as possible getting out of non-core activities."
Okan-Vick claims Minor Design is taking an "exceptionally reduced fee" that would normally be $80,000 to $100,000.
What makes the cost seem especially gratuitous to critics is that Okan-Vick's department already housed a team of acclaimed graphic designers who have done extensive projects for other city agencies as well. They created the city controller's office logo free of charge and won kudos for the design of comprehensive financial accounting reports produced by that office.
They won't be around too much longer, however. As part of her budget belt-tightening, Okan-Vick is laying off the two-member graphics section next week and the supervisor is retiring. Perhaps not coincidentally, the section has been supervised by Deputy Director Susan Christian, a longtime parks executive with whom Okan-Vick has been carrying on a bureaucratic cold war since she took over.
Parks activists are also complaining about other layoffs. Board members and users of Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park are fuming over the layoffs of technicians who handle the lighting for the theater's productions. Those cutbacks are set for the end of the theater's season.
"It's tragic," comments Miller board chairman Tim Cisneros, the brother of former HUD secretary Henry.
"There's going to be less support for the producers in trying to produce professional-quality performances. Sound and light are as critical as anything else to putting on a show." Cisneros points out that when community artists get grants for shows, they don't have to spend their limited funds on the lighting and sound because the Miller staff takes care of it.
"The immediate concern is if these [technical workers] find other jobs or other opportunities and they leave prior to the end of the season, we would have to find someone with equal expertise at handling the productions," explains Cisneros. "I don't know to what degree you can subcontract this kind of knowledge -- sound and light -- on a whim."
Miller board member Alex Castillo quips, "What do we tell producers that are applying for next year's season? Bring your flashlights and megaphones?"
Daniel Bustamante, producer of Festival Chicano at the theater, says Okan-Vick is blindly cutting staff with no understanding of what it takes to maintain public parks or theaters.
"That facility has millions of dollars of sound and light equipment," says Bustamante, noting a recent renovation to boost both dimensions of the theater.
"With these layoffs, what she's doing is giving us an empty shell without the appropriate technical support to operate." While Okan-Vick contends that privatizing the functions will save money, Bustamante believes the cuts will endanger the safety of performers and audience and will cost more in the long run.
Bustamante and other producers like the Asian American Festival's Glenda Joe fear that the parks department's push to make Miller Theatre pay for itself will deprive ethnic events of a valued venue.
Okan-Vick "comes from Friends of Hermann Park," Bustamante says, "and I think there has always been a political-cultural segment of our community that wants to privatize Miller Theatre, wants to charge money and wants to do certain things that are not ethnic cultural shows."
Joe was more explicit in a statement sent to the mayor and City Council.
"Okan-Vick and her wealthy cohorts have made no secret of their distaste for the 'riff-raff' that use the park, especially those nasty little minority arts festivals that bring all those pesky colored people onto their pristine parks grounds."
The Miller board recently sought to hire a consultant for $15,000 to survey the theater's needs and recommend courses of action. However, Okan-Vick quickly stepped in to say her department would hire the consultant and fund the study. Cisneros says he was surprised that a department so short of cash would volunteer to take on the expense. Several parks sources say it was a move by the director to maintain control of the consultant selection and recommendations. She responds that the department can save money by bundling the study with other assignments for consultants.
Late last week, after a number of media outlets had requested interviews, Okan-Vick called a press conference on short notice. There, she insisted it was Councilman Goldberg who had said the Friends of Hermann paid for the logo.
"He made the statement," said the director. When asked why she didn't correct Goldberg, parks public information officer Marene Gustin broke in to deflect the query, claiming that Goldberg simply misunderstood a previous conversation.
Contacted later, the councilman stood by his assertion that the director had told him that the logo work was being paid for by Friends of Hermann Park.
Okan-Vick also told reporters she was not trying to evade council by keeping the Minor Design contract just under the amount required for their approval. "City Council would know about it regardless. There's nothing we're trying to hide here."
The Insider noted to her that council didn't know about the logo contract. "If they ask," the director quickly replied. "There are many contracts like this we enter into, and we don't share each and every one of them unless a question comes up, like this one."
By then it was becoming very apparent that with Okan-Vick you have to ask the right question to get a straight answer.
The day after the press conference, a parks source informed The Insider that he "didn't ask the right question" -- Okan-Vick had hired Minor Design for yet another contract that she had failed to mention to reporters.
Spokeswoman Gustin confirms that there is indeed another $10,300 pact with Minor Design for development of prototypes for parks signage, but the money is coming through the nonprofit Houston Parks Board Inc.
For those dealing with the parks director in the future, best keep in mind that when it comes to the truth, Okan-Vick's de facto policy is "if you don't ask, we sure don't tell."
Burn, Baby, Burn!
The flames are getting hotter under another city department head, Houston Fire Chief Chris Connealy. Mayoral contender Orlando Sanchez had already called for the chief's balding scalp, and now he's been joined by fellow candidate Bill White.
White initially declined to single out department heads that he would replace. But for Connealy, who has been taking heat from the firefighters union for cutting the number of personnel assigned to each truck, the candidate now says he's making an exception.
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"It looks to me like the fire chief has lost the confidence of employees, and those are the first folks I would talk to in determining who we would have run a department," says White. "When that happens, you know you have a management problem that needs to be corrected."
When Connealy got tagged "worst department head" in the Houston Press ["Parting Shots," May 15], he responded with an e-mail noting that he had been nominated by the International Association of Fire Chiefs for their Metropolitan Section Fire Chief of the Year.
"This is fire departments in the U.S. that have at least 400 firefighters," wrote Connealy. "Obviously, that is the larger [sic] cities in the U.S. This nomination by Chief Grammer came before the release of your article."
The Insider suggests that the chief better start sending those e-mails to the mayoral candidates pronto if he wants to keep his job past next January. But please, get a copy reader to work over the messages first.