The Lapdog Eats His Own
If you think your job situation is about as miserable as it can get, cheer up. At least you aren't among the Houston city controller's office employees who have been fired, laid off or are still hanging on by their gnawed fingernails under the regime of Lloyd Kelley, a man whose management style is drawing all kinds of historical comparisons. "You have to go back to World War II," muses one victim of the new order. "Fascist is the word that comes to mind."
Before the firings of three execs last week, George Greanias' successor had already swung a broadax through the ranks at the controller's office, eliminating more than 30 staffers. Insiders say the staff cuts have decimated the pool of experts who knew how to run the complex computer systems that process vendor payments, reconciliation of accounts and earnings from city investments. At least one former staffer believes that such developments are music to the ears of Mayor Bob Lanier. Why? Because Lanier had numerous run-ins with Greanias in his first two terms over financial issues, and the fewer financial experts there are in the controller's office, the fewer problems he's likely to have.
"No power there at all," says the source. "No way to do anything. They don't have to get rid of the controller's office with a charter election -- they do it this way."
Meanwhile, Kelley, who's made no secret of his intention of stepping on to bigger and better political things following his stint as controller, can strike a pose as an enemy of big government. "Whatever he's done will make wonderful sound bites for whatever election he's going to run for," says the source. "He'll say he got rid of 35 people during his first two months in office, and people will think that's great. But the controller's office, for all practical purposes, has been gutted."
Many of the fatalities are veterans who had served under a number of controllers in what had traditionally been nonpolitical roles -- nonpolitical, that is, until Kelley took over. Margaret Hansen, director of systems and administration services and a 19-year city employee, got the boot Tuesday morning a week ago from Kelley aide David Hage. When Hansen asked Hage how long she had to clear out, she says, Hage glanced at his watch and replied, "Oh, till about noon."
Hansen has written a letter to Lanier describing Kelley's firings as putting the city "at risk." Hansen predicts the first symptom will be delayed vendor payments, followed by investment problems as the remaining staff finds it doesn't have the knowledge to detect or fix things in the complex computer program. She acknowledges Kelley's right to choose his own staff, but says "he has dismissed personnel who performed critical jobs related to the city's operation."
One purpose of Kelley's purges, say former key staffers, is to allow him to place his political apparatchiks in control of the city's most sensitive financial functions. To replace Hansen, for example, Kelley turned to his former council aide, Bill Stevens, an attorney whose computer experience derives from a stint as a programmer for Brown and Root back in the '70s. Stevens took the heat for Kelley during an Ethics Committee probe of Kelley's interest in a house in the Heights that had been scheduled for demolition. The committee investigation found Stevens in violation of city ethics codes, but that won't keep him from administering the city's highly sensitive financial management system.
Former staffers say that when Kelley's people took over in January, they offered assurances that jobs were not in jeopardy, even as they prepared to get rid of key division directors. At one meeting, Kelley harangued the directors, telling them "here's the way it is. Anyone who wants to work in this office for what I want to pay 'em has a job. But I don't want anyone to feel like they're a hostage, so anybody that doesn't want to work for me should go and get another job." When one director questioned whether the jobs were really safe, Kelley repeated his statement.
"That was a lie," says one ex-director, "because right then they were already starting to make up their next layoff list." That list included three executives, Sue Bailey, Tony Pattio and Fred Clarke, and half the office's internal audit staff. Even then, longtime execs such as Hansen hoped the worst was over. Then, two weeks ago, Hage and Stevens called the directors in and presented them with new lists of staffers to be terminated, including three key staffers under Hansen. And last week, Hansen and two other executives were gone.
"I think the controller's office will never again be able to hire professional people," says a former staffer sadly. "It has been decimated."
Worry about the state of affairs in the controller's office may also be taking root on City Council, which regularly rebuffed Greanias in his battles with Lanier. One Council source says of the ousted directors: "That's a crew that was dedicated to the city and not to any one individual, not to Lance Lalor or to George Greanias. The controller's office was there to be a watchdog, a checks and balances for the city, and now I'm concerned."
Maybe, guys, the concern is coming just a little late.
Can't You Hear Her Knockin'?
What with all the talk about Rice professor Lee Brown running for mayor in 1997, some of the other hopefuls might feel out of sight and out of mind. Perhaps that explains why District A Councilwoman Helen Huey, a term-limited representative of Northwest Houston, told folks at a recent Martha Wong for county tax assessor fundraiser that she was gearing up to run for mayor. Asked by The Insider to elaborate, The Hammerin' One opined that all the mayoral speculation is getting out of hand. "It's way too early for all of that to be going on, but it's been fueled by all of the speculation about who's coming back to town from where," said Huey, in a clear reference to Brown. Although Huey says she's taken no concrete steps toward running, she's leaving no doubts as to her status. Declares Huey: "I do plan on being in the race when it's time for the race to begin, which is not until next year." So there!
Sheila Rushes In Where Angels Fear to Tread
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee's reputation as the best funeral service campaigner in Houston history continued to grow last week as she rolled into a Wortham Center memorial service for Char Rothrock with a letter to be read to the assembled throng. Never mind that Rothrock couldn't stand Lee and was none too reluctant to share that opinion with compadres.
Afterward, Lee worked the crowd like an Energizer Bunny, pushing forward with her fearsome "Hi, how are you, I'm Sheila Jackson Lee" routine. Given the congresswoman's similar grandstanding several weeks earlier at the Barbara Jordan funeral, where she talked more about herself than B.J., The Insider offers this tip for Houstonians seeking to guarantee that their own last rites on Earth be Sheila-free:
(1) Ask your lawyer to draw up a restraining order banning Lee from appearing at whatever wakes, funeral services, memorial affairs or parties that family and friends might have a mind to stage for you.
(2) Sign and insert said restraining order in your will. Include a posthumous press release that denounces any violations of the order, making sure to attach instructions on where to send it.
(3) Rest in peace.
The Insider wants to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Volunteer your items at 624-1483 or 624-1496 (fax).
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.