Married to the Job
To some in attendance, the scene at City Council was so sweet it was almost cloying. Accepting her appointment as Houston's new parks director in August 2002, Roksan Okan-Vick emotionally thanked her husband, James Vick, for his faith and support.
Not to mention his selflessness. As a memo to councilmembers explained, James Vick had been an architect at Knudson & Associates, which had recently won a big contract with the Parks and Recreation Department. To satisfy the city's ethical constraints, Vick had agreed to leave the firm.
The memo further noted that the contract had been "reconstituted" and Knudson & Associates was no longer a party to it. Together with Vick's departure, the new contract "should resolve any potential conflict of interest in the nomination and confirmation of Ms. Roksan Okan-Vick," wrote the city's then-chief administrative officer, Al Haines.
At-Large Councilman Gordon Quan remembers being impressed by Vick's sacrifice. "I thought it was noble on his part," he says. "I felt like that was a great thing for the husband to sacrifice his job for his wife." Okan-Vick's nomination sailed through council.
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Less than two years later, though, that scene doesn't seem quite so sweet. Vick's former firm ended up where it started, doing landscaping as a subcontractor under the same contract the city "reconstituted." And while Vick hasn't rejoined his old firm, his new firm was recently chosen to do design work for a city park -- a situation no one bothered to run past the city attorney until after receiving questions from the Houston Press.
In other words: Those potential conflicts are looking a little less resolved every day.
The Houston Parks Board is not formally a part of the city government, but it might as well be. It's established in the city charter. The mayor appoints its members. The city parks director, herself a mayoral appointee, is the group's executive secretary. The city attorney does the group's legal work.
A nonprofit corporation, the board was founded to raise money for municipal parks. Sometimes it donates the money to the city. More often it handles the work itself, hiring contractors and supervising improvement projects.
So when another nonprofit group, The Park People, raised $1.2 million to upgrade Tony Marron Park, it asked the parks board to serve as project manager. The city had earmarked $800,000 for the project, and Harris County was contributing as well.
Candyce Rylander, executive director of the parks board, says the board inherited a project already under way. In 2001, The Park People had hired the SWA Group, an architectural firm headquartered in Sausalito, California, to do the design work. The firm was paid about $9,000, says Glenda Barrett, executive director for The Park People.
The parks board then hired SWA in January 2003 to handle construction drawings for Tony Marron, a contract worth $197,843.
Three months before, James Vick had joined the firm, Barrett says. And since the project was getting city money, and Okan-Vick was on the parks board, the firm's selection suddenly seemed suspect.
City law forbids public "officers" and their spouses from having financial interest in city contracts, says Assistant City Attorney Paul Bibler. The charter additionally requires parks board members to abstain from voting when they have a conflict.
But, as Bibler notes, the rules are ambiguous. Okan-Vick doesn't have a vote on the board anyway. Plus, after initially explaining that city and private funds were pooled into a single pot, parks officials now insist that they were kept separate and SWA was paid with the private money. "That could make a difference in how various laws apply," Bibler says.
The parks board seems to fall into a particularly confusing area. Bibler says his office has never examined whether city ethics laws apply to the board. He received several calls from parks officials about the topic last week, but his office hasn't been asked to issue a formal opinion. "The information I have is too sketchy to even have a preliminary sense of what's going on," he says.
Karen Getty, the state chair for Common Cause Texas, says the situation depends on disclosure. "It makes it easier for the public to make a quick decision on whether this passes the integrity test."
Okan-Vick concedes that she didn't ask for a legal opinion or make a point of disclosing her husband's employment. It didn't seem necessary, she says. "At that point, the contract was a rubber stamp. It was a done deal as of 2001."
Rylander, of the parks board, says she knew James Vick worked for SWA. "But that doesn't stand in our way," she says. The board wanted to hire SWA because it had already done preliminary plans for The Park People. It didn't discuss the Okan-Vick connection "because it's not relevant," she says. "We would not have hired someone else to do the job to their design. We would not do it."
Okan-Vick doesn't dismiss the ethical questions. "I understand the perception," she says. "This is something we're clearly going to have to watch. There's no question about that." But she also insists she did nothing wrong: "My only passion and mission is to do what's best for the parks system. I really have no other agenda here."
Quan, who sits on the council committee that oversees the parks department, agrees. "She and her husband are great people. I don't think they'd do anything wrong."
Quan blames the controversy on Okan-Vick's outsider status. Okan-Vick grew up in Istanbul and has a lilting Turkish accent; some city workers seem to feel she's "snooty" or "upper-class," Quan says. "She's not a down-to-earth, good old girl who's been at the department for a while. It seems like she's always had a battle ever since she came over to the parks department."
Indeed, Okan-Vick has drawn controversy in her 18-month tenure with the city. She took heat for commissioning a new department logo for $24,500, just below the threshold that requires competitive bidding. It was also controversial because the department had its own in-house design team (see "Logos, Lies and Layoffs," by Tim Fleck, June 26).
And perhaps the only reason the contract involving Vick's old firm, Knudson & Associates, hasn't been controversial is that no one seems to know about it. According to the memo that Haines wrote City Council, Knudson was taking itself off the contract.
But after Vick left the firm and his wife was appointed parks director, the firm was quietly made a subcontractor on the same project. It now works under its former partners. "The problem would have been if [Vick] was working for his wife," says Mignette Dorsey, a spokeswoman for the Building and Services Department. "But when he's gone, he's gone."
City officials say it's out of their hands. The city doesn't have to approve a contractor's choice of subs, Dorsey says. "We can't tell them what to do."
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