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The Insider

Rocks in Their Heads
Japanese rock garden is supposed to inspire feelings of peace and tranquillity. But the rock garden in Hermann Park seems to have had the opposite effect on the city's Parks and Recreation Department hierarchy, which apparently views the five-and-a-half-acre garden as if it were full of gallstones, rather than granite boulders.

The city's continued neglect of the Hermann Park garden led parks department supervisor Virginia Vargas, who had overseen the garden, to resign her $22,000-a-year post earlier this month. Vargas complained that her superiors had failed to provide needed materials and equipment and had denigrated the work of department staffers who maintain the garden.

Vargas told The Insider that she had just returned from a ten-day self-paid trip to Japan to study garden culture when Bill Schwartz, the parks department's southeast division supervisor, informed her that she was wasting the city's time if she was "doing anything other than mowing grass and spraying chemicals."

According to Vargas, when she tried to explain that wildlife-killing chemicals could not be used in an organic water garden that attracts rare birds and shelters thousands of dollars worth of Japanese koi, or goldfish, Schwartz replied, "I don't need to know how the Japanese drink their damn water. I just need to get the grass mowed and the weeds taken care of." Schwartz also ridiculed the weeklong efforts of her staff while Vargas was in Japan to spread 146 tons of black granite gravel in the garden by shovel -- a labor made necessary when requests to parks department supervisors for a front-end loader were ignored.

"That kind of attitude is prevalent in the Parks and Recreation Department, and that is why I decided to resign," says Vargas. "I feel I can better support the garden as a private citizen in Houston by establishing a Japanese Garden Society."

(Schwartz denies making any comment about the Japanese and their water-drinking habits to Vargas and insists he had no problems with the garden staff while Vargas was absent. As to the value of Vargas's duties overseeing the garden, Schwartz said that was an issue for higher-ups in the parks department to address.)

The Hermann Park garden was a gift to the city from the Japanese-American community in 1992 and is supported by the nonprofit Japanese Garden Incorporated, which raised several million dollars to construct the garden and maintains an endowment of $176,000. In addition to a waterfall and several hundred tons of boulders in an arrangement designed by architect Ken Nakajima, the garden contains dozens of traditional Japanese plant species and walkways covered with raked gravel.

Unfortunately, it has not been kept in pristine condition. The water in the garden pond and waterways is so murky, according to garden supporter Norma Inafuku, that the fish can rarely be seen. Vargas estimates that only 1,000 of the more than 6,000 azaleas planted in the initial installation remain; she says the garden has not been adequately fertilized in two years.

In its first year of operation, the garden was maintained by people who knew little about the vegetation, says Vargas. As a result, when dogwoods and redbuds dropped their leaves in winter, a caretaker thought they were dead and had them ripped from the ground.

Even before her April 6 resignation, Vargas had ventured onto thin ice with her bosses by criticizing the decision to demolish a rock garden in the basement of the old HL&P building that the city had purchased and is remodeling. The garden was obstructing the path of a proposed new route for the downtown tunnel system.

When Vargas learned that city workers planned to shatter the boulders, she told a Chronicle reporter she was "devastated" to learn that the "beautiful stones were being destroyed." She suggested that the boulders instead be transported to the Hermann Park garden, an idea accepted by public works officials.

But Vargas's seemingly innocuous remarks in the Chronicle angered Susan Christian, a deputy parks department director, who called Vargas after the story's appearance and, says Vargas, "literally screamed" at her for talking to a reporter.

Christian denies she raised her voice to Vargas and claims she encourages department employees to talk freely with the media -- as long as they coordinate their comments with her. (In previous Press stories about the parks department, employees have flatly contradicted Christian's assertion, saying they had been instructed never to talk to the media.)

After resigning, Vargas prepared a list of improvements that were needed at the garden, including sprayers for fertilization, wheelbarrows, ladders and a facility where workers can eat lunch or take breaks. Currently, Vargas says, employees must use a public restroom for shelter when the weather is bad.

"I did see some of the things she wrote down and a lot of them are quite extensive," says Christian. "I think that a lot of those things are things we can't afford to do at current status anyway, within our budget."

 

Meanwhile, Dan Jones, a deputy director of the Public Works and Engineering Department, seems embarrassed by the HL&P garden flap and wants to assure Vargas that City Hall isn't angry at her over her previous public pronouncements. He also credits Vargas with giving him "the opportunity to get out of a ticklish situation with the Japanese garden stones" by recommending that they be hauled to Hermann Park.

"It was the perfect idea," says Jones, "and I wish I had thought of it myself."

How Dumb Can They Get?
With local TV news in a periodic blood 'n' guts swoon and the corpses piling up at the tops of the newscasts, Channel 11's dismissal without explanation of veteran City Hall reporter Bill Jeffreys is one more sign that intelligence and expertise offer no guarantee of job security in the news biz.

Jeffreys's firing by Channel 11 news director Joe Duke also may signal the end of The Spirit of Texas's attempt under Duke predecessor David Goldberg to position the CBS affiliate as the intelligent alternative to Channel 2's "Buzz" and Channel 13's band of aging zanies, who more and more are resembling the original Star Trek crew.

"I was amazed they'd fire him," a longtime television newsman says of Jeffreys. "That shop had stability, and the feeling that if you do your job, you're not going to get axed. And let's face it, Bill Jeffreys had been at City Hall longer than anyone on Council. He's got a body of experience nobody at City Hall has."

Thin and uncharacteristically droll, at least for a TV newsman, Jeffreys is hardly a pretty face, but unlike, say, Channel 2 anchor-stuntman Rob Johnson, his brain is indisputably larger than his mouth. His dry wit and somewhat offbeat delivery may have been his downfall, although Jeffreys says he's still not sure why he was fired.

"I know that I did good work -- lots of good work," says Jeffreys. "I am something of a newspaper reporter trapped in a broadcaster's body, and maybe that just struck [Duke] as weird."

Jeffreys says the only reason he was given for his dismissal was that he complained too much -- an explanation the 14-year KHOU reporter finds unconvincing. "There are people there who complain a lot more than me, and arguing and bitching between reporters and assignment editors, that's a national pastime, for crying out loud."

While agreeing that local television news has "dumbed down" over the past few years, Jeffreys maintains a loyalty to his ex-employer. "I loved the job I had. I felt almost religious about it, that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. Hanging out at City Hall, pestering the mayor and the councilmembers, I was in the right place."

Not anymore.

Mexico (Out of) Business?
Ramon Gonzalez Parra may have been a whiz at business in Mexico City, where he ran and then sold the city's onetime leading daily, Ovaciones. But judging by court papers filed here last week in connection with the foundering Mexico Business magazine, Gonzalez has a lot to learn about doing business north of the border.

The staff of Mexico Business resigned last week, with the magazine mired in debt, the May issue sitting in limbo at a printer's in Mexico and Gonzalez squaring off in court against Chris Hearne, the former Houston Press publisher under the paper's previous ownership and current chief of Microsoft's embryonic Sidewalk on-line venture in Houston.

Gonzalez claims that starting in 1993, he pumped more than $2 million into his business partnerships with Hearne to produce Turista, a magazine for Mexican nationals visiting the U.S., and Mexico Business, a glossy news and feature monthly aimed at Americans desiring to do business in Mexico. Turista closed down last year, and now the future of Mexico Business is very much in doubt. While Hearne told Gonzalez the magazine was worth $4 million, others associated with the venture say it is virtually worthless and mired in lawsuit and tax liabilities.

Hearne, the managing partner in the ventures, is trying to sell his 40 percent interest, while limited partner Gonzalez is scrambling to try to save his investment as the 60 percent limited partner. Hearne joined Microsoft full-time in December, leaving Gonzalez snared in a Catch-22, according to his attorney.

"My client is a limited partner," explains lawyer Burnell Goodrich, "and a limited partner can't manage the company without losing his exemption from liability. The minute Mr. Gonzalez starts putting in money and running it, he's a dead man as far as liability is concerned. You manage and you lose your exemption. Keep it and you lose your money. Take your pick."

 

Gonzalez wants to force Hearne to accept 40 percent of the liabilities of the magazine, including his cash advances. Hearne says he's defending his right to sell his interest in the publication to another party. As we went to press, the two were working on an agreement for Gonzalez's son-in-law to purchase Hearne's share of Mexico Business. If a deal is struck, all legal action would be dropped and the magazine would continue publication.

The Insider awaits your call at 624-1483 or 624-1496 (fax), or you can e-mail him at Insider@houston-press.com.


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