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The Insider

Woodman, Whack That Tree!
Parker Estates was once one of the most intriguing green spaces near downtown and had been considered as the locale for a city park. The site of the family mansions of Colonel James Baker and other old-line Houston movers and shakers at the turn of the century, in recent years the neighborhood had become an abandoned glen full of palmettos. large oaks and the occasional sleeping transient.

And then, two weeks ago, progress came calling. Now the freshly scalped glen is a temporary graveyard for mounds of massive tree trunks bulldozed in the first phase of construction by developers who plan more than 1,000 apartments and townhouses on the land west of Bagby and immediately south of the Fourth Ward, which sits in the Midtown Redevelopment Zone.

While the trees on the city right of way along the winding streets through the property have been left largely intact, most of the spectacular live oaks in the interior areas have been leveled.

Glenda Barrett, the executive director of the nonprofit Parks People, describes the sight of the felled trees as "sickening," particularly since her group had tried for years to interest the city in buying the parcel for park land. Trees for Houston director Kathy Lord agrees that the denuded property is "tough to look at." But both laud the preservation of the trees in the rights of way, which are protected by city ordinance, and view the flattening of the privately owned green space as the necessary cost of redeveloping an area neglected for years.

"If the property was going to develop at all, we sort of knew only the periphery trees would be left," says Barrett. "We lost the opportunity to purchase it [for a park] way back two mayors ago."

The three developers working the area are Jenard Gross, Austin-based JPI and Columbus Realty Trust. Gross plans to build some 210 residential units on the seven acres of Parker Estates, while the other two are pursuing construction of 400-unit projects on the old Blaffer and Bland Cadillac properties nearby. A former city of Houston forester, Jack Hill, has been hired by both the city and JPI to supervise the preservation of trees during the construction.

"It's very complicated," Hill says of his job. "They want to develop and redo, and you've got to do everything you can to try to minimize the impact of construction."

The forester says most of the trees along the city's rights of way have been saved, although a dozen or so of the 150 adjoining the JPI property are slated for removal because of disease or hazards to traffic.

Unlike West University Place, where builders must account for every tree on a site, Hill notes that Houston does not mandate the preservation of large trees on private property, other than those located in a right of way or in building setback areas along thoroughfares.

The city hired Hill to supervise the maintenance of the streetside trees, and he then approached JPI and proposed the developer hire him to advise it on preserving greenery on the inside of the property. Now he's employed by both the city and the developer, but sees no conflict between the two jobs.

"I have so much invested in the street trees, that [the city] wanted me to be under contract with the developer to preserve the trees from both sides," he says. "If anything, it doesn't compromise the interests at all. It enhances the interests."

Susan Christian, an assistant director for the city's Parks and Recreation Department, also professes to find nothing wrong with the forester protecting the city's interests while also being paid by the developer.

"One would think that he would be able to devise a plan, and articulate and communicate that to the developer," says Christian, "because it's coordinated with the city forester."

On the other hand, what happens when the interests of the city and the developer conflict? Whose money would speak louder?

Hill says the JPI development required that many large trees be cut to make way for a four-story garage and the apartments. "Because they were such large trees," he explains, "there's not much room for them." But JPI is selling some parcels of land along the edge of its development to the Midtown Zone to provide "linear park space," Hill says.

If it makes tree lovers feel any better, the corpses of the big oaks are being ground into mulch to protect the roots of their surviving brethren.

Some of the development in the area did get out of control, Hill acknowledges, when Gross's crews tore up sidewalks and foundations on their site with large earthmovers. "When they scooped out the sidewalks," says the forester, "they broke limbs off the trees and tore a lot of roots out. And they have acknowledged that they screwed up."  

Not many violators do. A parks department source tells us the enforcement of the city's tree-protection regulations is lax, at best, and few culprits are actually prosecuted.

"Every time we try to enforce it, the city attorneys sort of lead us to a dead end," says the employee. "They say, 'You don't have enough proof to file claims.' "

Victor Cordova, the city's chief forester, had no complaint about the handling of the Parker Estates deforestation when he spoke with The Insider. But our parks department source claims that Cordova left plenty unsaid. "I think he feels like he's got his hands tied, and he was forced by the powers that be not to open his mouth. All they ever tell you around here is keep your mouth shut."

And watch out for those falling trees.

My First Name Is Judge
David West, who recently retired as Harris County's chief administrative judge, certainly left public office in style, at least judging by the glossy brochure he mailed out this week to some 9,000 Texas jurists and attorneys trumpeting his new Greenway Plaza-area law office.

The only problem is that by referring to his new practice as "the law offices of Judge David West" on the brochure's cover, he may have violated a canon of the state code of judicial conduct prohibiting judges from using the prestige of their office to advance their private interests. The canon is also applicable to "retired judges who have elected to return to the active practice of law," according to a 1987 opinion of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

"I'm not going to say it's a violation till I look at the canons," says Doug Shaver, West's successor as chief administrative judge. "But I got my copy of [the brochure] this morning. If it's not a violation of the canons, I think it should be."

In addition to the liberal use of his title to promote his new law practice, West spent nearly $1,000 in campaign funds to attend an attorney-mediator institute in San Antonio in February. Prominently displayed in his new brochure is the claim that "attorneys turn to Judge West to mediate their clients' cases not only because of the weight of his knowledge but also because he applies successful principles of mediation."

West also paid his son Blake, a fifth-year senior at Baylor, $4,476 out of his campaign fund for more than 470 hours of internship work in West's court, which works out to $9.51 an hour. (West notes the arrangement would have violated state nepotism laws if his son had been paid with county funds.)

Then there was the nearly $1,300 campaign expenditure for retirement photos, as well as West's reporting of a Toshiba computer and monitor as campaign property valued at more than $500.

Campaign money also funded at least one great vacation for West. Last summer, the then-judge and his wife Gayle, a former political consultant who now works for County Clerk Beverly Kaufman, traveled to Ireland for an Irish-American judicial seminar. West ran up a campaign account tab of $4,957.43, though he says his wife's expenses were not included in the total. Those costs include a $1,011 bill at the Westbury Hotel in Dublin, a $1,048 bill at Adare Manor and a $412 payment to Ballylickey Manor House as the Wests made their pilgrims' progress across the Emerald Isle.

Courthouse observers will recall that the husband-and-wife team of Judges Jim and Jeannine Barr were laughed out of Commissioners Court when they asked for county funds to cover an excursion to the Caribbean for a judicial seminar. Technically, the Barrs withdrew their request after it received adverse publicity. They should have just followed West's lead and avoided derision by using campaign funds for their fun and frolic.

West is unapologetic about exploiting his former office to promote his new legal practice.

"That's who I am," says West, who was a NASA flight engineer before attending law school. "I don't think I have to use 'Reverend West' or anything else but what I am."

Told that the judicial opinion cited above notes that a judge's initial announcement of retirement may mention his status, West then characterized his brochure as his retirement announcement, despite the fact that he delivered a farewell speech to friends and employees in early June, wrote a resignation letter to Governor George Bush and received coverage of his retirement in print and television news stories. At the time, West explained that he was quitting because he needed to boost his income "if I am going to provide the financial resources necessary to keep my family together."  

West claims other former judges routinely put the state symbol on their legal cards. "There is everything imaginable," says West of the ways former judges use their resumes to promote their legal practices. In fact, West's new business card refers to him as "Judge David West, retired," and he says he intends to keep the title as part of his professional name. "I hadn't noticed anybody calling me 'Good Time Dave,' " he says. "They call me 'Judge West.' "

Of course, anyone who cares to scrutinize West's campaign finance disclosure reports might well call him the former. And West does admit he had "a real good time" in Ireland last summer, although he rejects the idea that there was anything improper in using his campaign money to foot the bills. Nor is he apologizing for the other interesting uses of his campaign funds.

The mediation institute he attended earlier this year was "just another course," claims West, who says he was a "champion of appointing mediators" during his decade-plus as a state district judge. As for the computer purchased with contributors' money, West says he plans to keep it for personal use but will repay his campaign fund out of his own pocket.

When we asked how much he'll be forking over, West paused. "I don't know," he replied, "what do you think?"

Pretty (Noxious) in Pink
The funeral service for Norman Black was over, and Rabbi Samuel Karff, who had just delivered a moving eulogy to the recently retired federal judge, summoned the honorary pallbearers for a procession behind the casket down the center aisle of Beth Israel Temple. Immediately after the pallbearers -- all federal district judges and all clad in black -- filed out behind the coffin, along came "this vision in screaming hot pink -- Sheila Jackson Lee," as one attendee reported.

Given Lee's reputation for grandstanding at funerals, our tipster was more surprised that the congresswoman had somehow failed to seize the microphone during the service than by the inappropriate exit and color of her dress.

Meanwhile, Lee's Washington chief of staff, Kathi Wilkes, is joining the ever-lengthening roster of former Lee employees. Wilkes tendered a letter of resignation to Lee earlier this month, but did not return a call from The Insider to let us know exactly why or when she's leaving. Perhaps driving Ms. Sheila just wore her out.

Call The Insider at 624-1483 or 624-1496 (fax), or deliver the news by e-mail at Insider@houstonpress.com.


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