Oliver's Story

Before he resigned and dropped out of sight, Spellman was the best and brightest of the Brown brigade.
Deron Neblett

Now we know. Mayor Lee Brown came into office five years ago promising to institute neighborhood-oriented government. With the recent snap resignation of his highly regarded parks director-turned-chief of staff Oliver B. Spellman Jr., it seems that what the former Bill Clinton-era drug czar has actually delivered in the twilight of his administration is City Hall-oriented anarchy.

While Hizzoner hopped around the Persian Gulf on a trade junket, his City Hall power structure seemed to be degenerating into a rough approximation of governance Afghani-style, with various warlords -- most notably City Attorney Anthony Hall -- running the show.

The 49-year-old Spellman's sudden departure kicked up a flurry of City Hall rumors, the most persistent being that he flunked a random drug test earlier this month. Three different sources with close administration ties gave the same account.

There's some question whether the mayor was informed of the situation before he left town. As with a similar scenario involving Brown's executive secretary Darcy Mackey last year, by this account Spellman had the option of quitting or being terminated.

"He flunked," alleges one of the sources. "All I can tell you is what I was told. No one's going to tell you that, because they're trying to give Oliver a chance to come back and say something like 'I've got a problem and I'm going to fix it.' "

Hall did not return an Insider phone inquiry and declined to comment on the resignation to other reporters. City human resources director Lonnie Vara refused to confirm that Spellman had been given a drug test, but left the question hanging.

"You'd have to go back to city legal for that," says Vara. "'Cause I'm not sure on all that information just what I could give out or not. I know legal's looking at it right now." The Houston Press and several other media outlets have filed open records requests with the city seeking access to Spellman's personnel file and drug-test records.

In a way, the mayor is responsible for his staff's drug-test nightmares. Upon taking office, he issued a special directive requiring that his office personnel and appointed directors submit to random tests. In other city departments, random drug tests are mandatory only for workers in hazardous or public safety-related jobs.

After Brown was safely out of media range on the Middle East jaunt, Spellman announced his departure on a Thursday night in a terse three-sentence e-mail that described his reasons for leaving as "personal" and his location as "out of town, spending time with my family." The mayor's staff then released the statement on Brown's letterhead the next day without any clarification or spin.

A mayoral source says the entire staff remains in the dark and that Spellman has not yet cleaned out his office.

The family members Spellman was spending time with apparently did not include his wife, D. Page Rander, a marketing and communications director at Texas Southern University. She e-mailed concerned friends that she was "well, but incredibly busy this week with TSU homecoming activities." She also mentioned taking the couple's two children to dinner in Houston the same day that Spellman was reportedly out of town in New York, where his mother resides. Rander thanked associates for their support and concluded, "it is much appreciated and I have shared it with Oliver."

The Insider called Spellman's Friendswood home and left a message with his wife asking for a response to reports he had resigned after flunking a drug test.

As of press time Spellman had not returned the call.

The stocky, sedate, balding bureaucrat hardly cuts the figure of a secretly wild and crazy guy. During his four-year tenure as parks and recreation director, he drew rave reviews as the best and brightest of the mayor's appointees. His reputation as a sober, competent administrator makes the mystery surrounding his resignation and disappearance that much more intriguing.

"I honestly and truly do not know," commented Councilwoman Annise Parker on the reports that drug testing led to Spellman's resignation. "If it's true, then he took the appropriate action."

As for Spellman's reputation as a straight arrow in the Brown administrative jungle, she opines, "That just speaks to our myths and biases about who might be using drugs and what kind of drugs. If so, it's sad for him, it's sad for his family, it's bad for the city, and it's stupid."

"To me he was a very stable, very calm, mannered, nice guy, one of the nicest directors I ever worked with," recalls Councilwoman Carol Alvarado, a former senior aide to Mayor Brown before winning office last fall. "Parks was in my portfolio, so I worked with him a lot, and he was very effective, very smart."

Spellman's decision to leave the parks post for the political role of chief of staff last February puzzled a number of City Hall veterans. Under Brown's rather fuzzy lines of administration (see "Brown's Diss-functional City Hall Family," March 22, 2001), the mayor's office became a free fire zone for power seekers and backstabbers. Particularly hazardous was the chief of staff position, which chewed up three previous occupants, Jay Aiyer, Cheryl Dotson and Jordy Tollett. One source sees the hand of City Attorney Hall, widely viewed as the real power behind the throne in Brown's waning term, in orchestrating Spellman's job change.

"What I was told is that Anthony was the one who selected him and recommended him to the mayor," says the source, "supposedly because he wanted somebody that was not as strong as Jordy, somebody who could be controlled and manipulated."

It was no secret in the mayor's office that Tollett and Hall often butted heads, and neither particularly cared for the other. "Hall wanted somebody there he could basically control, and he has done that with Oliver," says an administration source.

A councilmember believes it was less a matter of manipulation than mission. "Oliver could certainly hold his own. He's a very smart guy, but I don't think he was as strong a personality or as passionate about things as Jordy, particularly things about downtown. I think he saw his job not as an advocate but to carry out the mayor's initiatives."

Spellman regarded the chief of staff position as a way to add a political dimension to his already stellar parks credentials. "I told him I thought he was nuts to do it," chuckles Councilwoman Parker. "I think this represented a challenge, a way to stretch himself, a way to get a different kind of experience on his résumé. He really saw it as an opportunity."

Councilman Bert Keller, a leader on the conservative bloc that frequently opposed administration initiatives, believes Brown and Hall blundered badly when they replaced Tollett with Spellman.

"The smartest thing the mayor ever did was have Jordy as his chief of staff, because he's worth two votes," explains Keller of the personable, schmoozing Tollett. "So we lost a lot of one-vote things because of Jordy, and we won a lot of one-vote things because Oliver isn't that way. Jordy's a deal-maker and Oliver's just a very honest, straightforward person. That's what made it tough on him, I think."

Some City Hall observers saw political motivations in the timing of Spellman's resignation. It came after the mayor suffered perhaps the biggest defeat of his administration earlier this month when City Council voted to award a lucrative Hobby Airport food concession contract to Four Families rather than the administration choice, CA One. The swing vote belonged to Councilman Gabe Vasquez, who is considered one of Spellman's closest council friends. Keller suspects that Spellman caught some of the heat for that loss, and became expendable.

"I'm not necessarily buying the flunk-a-drug-test story," says Keller. "I think they're blaming him for some of their losses. There's more to it than just peeing in a cup."

Vasquez calls that speculation "leftover gossip" from the food fight. "I'm disappointed because I think the city lost a good director, a good administrator," says Vasquez. "I don't know any of the details surrounding his departure, and it's a surprise to me as much as anybody else."

Keller, widely viewed as one of the smartest councilmembers on budget matters, has had his own problems with substance abuse. He pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated two years ago after slamming his vehicle into a parked truck and leaving the scene on foot. Part of his sentence included a probationary period where he was required to submit to random drug tests.

"Now if that's the case," allows Keller of Spellman's predicament, "then that's the case, but I just don't think Oliver's that stupid."

Either Keller thinks Spellman is a lot smarter than the councilman is, or he has a short memory. At City Hall, recent history indicates that there's little correlation between an individual's intelligence and his propensity for substance abuse.

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