With Friends Like These...
Details, details: You'd think that the proposed whacking of more than 100 trees on the Hermann Park Golf Course would have somehow come to the attention of a group that calls itself the Friends of Hermann Park -- especially since that nonprofit organization vigorously lobbied the city to keep the course in the hands of the BSL Golf Corporation, the private operator that wants to carry out the landscaping maneuver.
Come to find out, though, the Friends of Hermann Park -- which, for a private organization, seems to exert an enormous amount of control over a supposedly public amenity --claims to have had no idea that BSL's plans for its $3.6 million renovation of the golf course called for the removal of 111 large trees, some of whose trunks are larger than three feet in diameter.
That oversight may be par for the course at the Friends, however, since its executive director was forced out six months ago and a small cadre of insiders on the board took control of the direction of the nonprofit, which is dedicated to raising money for improvements at the park.
When City Council, at the Friends' urging, granted BSL an unprecedented 15-year concession last fall to operate the park's golf course, no one mentioned anything about cutting old growth at Hermann, where the remaining stands of trees are already in severe decline after decades of neglect. But in late December, after several of the more environmentally attuned members of the Friends board discovered that many trees on the course were sporting white ribbons marking them for extinction, both BSL and the Friends leadership began trying to put a happy face on the proposed tree-cutting.
Along those lines, a news release from the city's Parks and Recreation Department announcing a "public meeting" last week to review the "master plan" for the course referred to BSL's "reforestation plans." (The private operator does propose to plant 500 trees elsewhere in the park to compensate for the loss of the larger trees on the golf course.)
As it turned out, "the public" was little in evidence at the January 7 meeting, but BSL owners Andrew Schatte and Richard Bischoff and their allies from the Friends were on hand at the park's Garden Center to try to justify the proposed deforestation.
First, Bill Coats, the chairman of the Friends' golf committee, soothingly explained that the group was starting with the idea that no tree ought to be executed, if possible, and that a two-stage review would take place before any were removed. Of course, that two-stage process had to be completed in the next nine days, according to deputy parks department director Susan Christian; otherwise, it would delay BSL's schedule for refurbishing the golf course. Coats didn't explain why the Friends of Hermann Park hadn't been informed during the planning of the renovation that large trees would have to come down.
According to what Schatte told the board, BSL "unfortunately" had to pursue the tree removal because Hermann's course, at 115 acres, is smaller than most standard golf courses, which generally run to 140 acres, and therefore BSL needed more room for its planned improvements. And Charles Burditt, the professional forestry expert paid by BSL to oversee its work, explained that the cutting could have been worse. Initially, BSL had targeted 150 trees for removal.
"A golf course is one of the hardest places for a tree to survive," Burditt told the group. Maybe he should have specified a "BSL golf course."
Friends chairwoman Deborah Rylander later told The Insider that BSL never mentioned previously that healthy trees would be cut down, and apparently no one thought to ask about the fate of trees in the public park. (By comparison, the recent redesign of the golf course at Memorial Park did not require the loss of any trees.)
But asking pointed questions hasn't been a high priority at the Friends since last summer, when the organization's executive director, Mary Anne Piacentini, was replaced by Patricia Winn in the newly created post of president/CEO.
Piacentini, who joined the Friends in 1993 after running the Cultural Arts Council for most of the eighties, took an independent, no-nonsense approach to her job that reportedly irritated some very influential Friends: Elyse Lanier, the Friends honorary co-chairman, Kenny Friedman, the organization's president, and Susan Keeton, a board member who is the wife of one of Friedman's partners at the downtown law firm of Mayor, Day, Caldwell & Keeton.
Having decided that Piacentini was too confrontational and independent for their tastes, Elyse and friends persuaded the board to create the new position. Although Piacentini applied for it, the $95,000-a-year job went to Winn. Word of Winn's appointment was leaked to Chronicle columnist Maxine Mesinger before the board had even voted to hire her.
"Some of the board members felt the direction of the organization should change, and I did not agree with the new direction," said Piacentini, who is now a consultant for other nonprofits in Houston. "I thought I was a good leader of the organization, and I did not want to be a second in command. So I left to pursue other opportunities."
One of Piacentini's sins, says a supporter on the board, was to have the temerity to take issue with Elyse Lanier and openly disagree with her in front of other board members. Piacentini declined to discuss the details of her relationship with Lanier and the Friends board, saying, "When you're dealing with people as an equal and not just saying, 'Yes sir, yes sir, I'll do whatever you want,' they don't always like that."
Piacentini also pushed for programs that would make Hermann Park more accessible to the minority populations on its east and southeast borders, rather than concentrating exclusively on the capital improvements designed to "prettify" the park. Piacentini had brought in the largest foundation contribution to the Friends, a $1.5 million Lila Wallace Reader's Digest grant to encourage the creation of outdoor science-education facilities at Hermann. Since Piacentini left, says one board member, development of the project, including the redevelopment of a storage facility into a science center, has languished. Chad Shaw, who had been in charge of the project, has also left the Friends and relocated to Chicago.
The Friends' efforts are funded by $13.5 million in city and Metro funds, some $8 million in private grants and donations and an expected $3 million annually from the refurbished, BSL-run golf course. As part of its deal with the city, BSL has pledged an additional $250,000 to renovate the historic old clubhouse.
Most of the Friends' staff under Piacentini have also moved on or scaled back activities with the group. Tiggy Garrett, the Friends development director, left at the end of the year to take a position at the University of Houston. Margaret Frick, the education coordinator, has cut back her participation to a two-day, part-time arrangement. Neither was available for comment on the current state of the Friends' effort.
Winn had little to say concerning the tree-cutting controversy. "I'm very happy to be a part of this phenomenally strong and dynamic organization," said Winn, who left most of the talking to Rylander, the Friends board chair. Rylander dismissed the idea that the Friends' failure to question BSL concerning its tree-removal plans reflected a lack of leadership by Winn. "The board is growing, the organization is growing and we have a very strong, dynamic situation here," Rylander gushed.
Barbara Hurwitz, considered the heavyweight fundraiser on the Friends board, resigned her position as chair of the nonprofit's development committee last week, diplomatically citing a desire to spend more time with her family. Hurwitz declined to discuss in detail Piacentini's ouster, although she professed to be a "big admirer" of the former executive director and said Piacentini had done "an absolutely phenomenal job."
By contrast, Hurwitz was noncommittal about Piacentini's successor: "Patricia Winn comes highly recommended, although she doesn't have the background on the park, the history in the park, that [Piacentini] had."
On the subject of the removal of Hermann Park trees, Mrs. Hurwitz seemed more than a little sensitive, perhaps because her husband, Maxxam chief Charles Hurwitz, is reviled by environmentalists for threatening to clear-cut an ancient stand of redwoods in California.
"That was a surprise to me when I came back," said Hurwitz, who had just returned from a three-week holiday trip when she learned of BSL's plans.
"I will be talking to [Schatte] and everybody and finding out more about that," she added, "because truly, Friends of Hermann Park is about preserving and protecting the park. And over the years, Hermann Park has lost a lot of trees."
Until there is a satisfactory resolution, we suggest that Mrs. Hurwitz and her husband abstain from any outings on the ski slopes. The trees have been very active of late, and they might not be taking all this talk of arboreal Armageddon as lightly as the leadership of the Friends of Hermann Park.
Even More Weasel Droppings
Lloyd Kelley and friends may have zapped the hard drives on personal computers in the city controller's office before vacating City Hall, but they still left behind some interesting souvenirs for Kelley successor Sylvia Garcia.
After the new controller asked for a police probe of the computer alterations, Kelley claimed it was standard procedure to disable hard drives when leaving an office. But former controller George Greanias recalls that no such procedure was necessary when he turned over the office to Kelley two years ago. Normally, the files on a hard drive can simply be deleted from an operating system without disabling the system's programs themselves.
Of course, Greanias had no reason to worry that anyone could reconstruct previous files in his computers. Kelley, who both practiced law and exercised his fascination with state and national Republican politics during his stint as controller, might have deemed some of the computers' contents inappropriate for sharing. While we apparently will never know what was in those computers, some of the old-fashioned paper documents left behind by Kelley's aides provide tantalizing hints.
Among those leftover documents discovered by Garcia aides were papers pertaining to the divorce of Kelley's sister, Marie Elizabeth Kelley Garner. A six-page fax from attorney Karen Menzies regarding the proceeding was sent to Kelley at City Hall on June 19, 1996. It contained the notation, "Call me if you have any questions." Notes on Kelley's City Hall stationery include the phone number of the lawyer for the sister's estranged husband. According to an itemized list of community property, Kelley's sister wanted two chain saws and a weed eater returned by her spouse.
Kelley also drafted a letter to the brother-in-law's attorney, Stuart Whitaker, with wording that sounds like a preview of Kelley's own rejection by voters last November: "I am very disappointed at your absolute refusal to even attempt to come to any sort of agreement. I fear your total lack of cooperation forebodes a contentious and unproductive adversarial relationship throughout the upcoming proceedings."
While Kelley has denied doing private legal work on city time, a stack of papers left behind at the controller's office reveals that one of his top aides, Bill Stephens, who practiced law in the same building as Kelley, tended to Kelley's personal interests while both were on the taxpayers' tab at City Hall.
An August 30, 1996 letter from attorney John Culver for Heard, Goggan, Blair & Williams, the delinquent property-tax collection firm, notified Stephens of adjusted tax amounts due on Kelley's personal tax account. "Per your conversations with this office and pursuant to a court order by Judge Mark Davidson," reads the missive, "the adjusted tax amounts are $9,373.09 for Harris County and $14,056.56 for HISD." Also found by Garcia's aides were canceled checks from the law firm of Cohen & Raymond to pay Kelley's property taxes, which, according to notations on the checks, were "paid under protest." The Harris County Tax Appraisal District later rejected Kelley's protests.
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The papers also chronicle Stephens's extensive efforts on behalf of Kelley to delay the demolition of the Woodland Heights house that Kelley was to renovate for his own use. For his labors on Kelley's behalf, Stephens had his wrist slapped by the city's Ethics Committee.
Meanwhile, Garcia is trying to figure out what to do with the high-priced video and sound equipment Kelley left behind on the eighth floor of City Hall, including an RCA big-screen TV, Pioneer speakers and an entertainment center complete with a CD player, a VCR and a tape deck. In a back office are three more televisions equipped with matching VCRs, apparently so that Kelley could record the news on Channels 2, 11 and 13 simultaneously.
An intern who worked in the office under Kelley told Garcia's newcomers that the video-and-sound system was often used to entertain the kids in the office. It was unclear whether the intern was referring to Kelley's staffers or Weaselboy's natural offspring. Garcia is considering donating the entertainment center to the downtown library, which presumably will make more fitting use of the taxpayer-funded equipment.
Call The Insider at (713) 624-1483 or (713) 624-1496 (fax), or contact him by e-mail at Insider@houstonpress.com.