Parks War: Turks Versus Christians

If the City of Houston had a bureaucratic version of anarchic, strife-torn Iraq, it would undoubtedly be headquartered at the South Wayside offices of the Parks and Recreation Department.

Almost daily the e-mail equivalent of rocket-propelled grenades fly from one set of disaffected employees against another, with the sides seemingly defined by the two centers of P&R power -- director Roksan Okan-Vick, the Turkish-born former director of the Friends of Hermann Park, and Susan Christian, the longtime parks diva who has built her own marketing and special events empire within the department. She even has a private business for which she does similar work in her non-city hours.

The Okan-Vick faction, whom we'll dub the Turks, accuses Christian of undermining Okan-Vick and her previous boss, director Bill Smith, with the aim of eventually inheriting the department herself. According to an e-mail circulated throughout city government recently, Christian fooled both her superiors into proposing to turn the city's free Miller Theater into a revenue-generating venue, knowing it would stir up an uproar from the facility's users.

Smith was arguably the worst department director during the tenure of the Bob Lanier administration, so even if Christian stabbed him in the back, a good case could be made for mercy killing. Likewise, if Okan-Vick fell for a shopworn trick that easily, her own competence should be questioned.

Meanwhile, the anti-Okan-Vick faction -- we'll call them Christians -- fired back last week. One whistle-blower circulated a complaint concerning a subordinate of one of Okan-Vick's deputy directors. It included a police report showing the man had been busted three years ago on misdemeanor charges of possessing more than two ounces of marijuana. He pleaded guilty, yet retains an important managerial position in the department.

"The director has been notified she has a convicted drug user and has yet to do anything about it," huffed the informant, who also filed an anonymous report with the city's Office of the Inspector General.

Okan-Vick spokeswoman Marene Gustin says the employee claimed the drugs belonged to a friend who got into his car before they were stopped by police. Although he pleaded out in exchange for deferred adjudication, then-parks director Oliver Spellman decided to take no action. Spellman himself later resigned from a position as mayoral chief of staff after flunking a drug test.

Another tipster helpfully informed the Insider that Okan-Vick and three of her deputy directors each receive annual car allowances of $4,200, even though they are not required to submit mileage reports to justify the payments. While Okan-Vick has cut operating hours at recreational facilities, according to the informant she has neglected to cut waste in her executive ranks.

In an indication of where the complainant was coming from, the missive notes that Susan Christian refused the vehicle allowance.

Gustin points out that auto allowances are standard perks for deputy directors across the city and help soften "these economic times where no one's had a raise in two years."

As for Christian refusing the car allowance, Christian says she merely didn't know how to apply for it earlier. She is now receiving the allowance and has applied for back payments.

City Councilwoman Annise Parker is crafting an ordinance that would transfer Christian's marketing and special events division to the mayor's office. If Parker doesn't hurry, by the time the legislation passes, a Humvee may be required to extract Susan from the P&R battlefield in one piece. -- Tim Fleck


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