The Outsider

Weird Power Trip
The world-class pyrotechnics have turned to ash, the world-class traffic jam has dispersed and the world-class mountain of garbage has been collected, but a burning question about Houston Industries' Power of Houston '97 celebration remains: Just what the hell were we celebrating?

We figured it was just another round of bread 'n' circuses bestowed on the rabble by Bob and Elyse, and when we put the question to Parks Department spokeswoman Susan Christian, she did nothing to disabuse us of the notion.

"We did it pretty much to celebrate the power of Houston and to market Houston," explains Christian, who coordinates events for the city. "And we did it for the people."

We wouldn't argue that most of "the people" did appear to enjoy the spectacle, whether or not a million of them actually elbowed their way downtown to see it, as organizers claimed. As for the marketing benefit, the Power of Houston cost taxpayers a bundle -- eight different city departments worked to stage the event -- and while the mayor's special parks fund will receive a small portion of the gate receipts, the total cost will far outstrip the revenues.

The millions Houston Industries spent to have its name attached won't defray the total, either -- every cent of the money was funneled through the nonprofit Parks Board to JW Productions, which produced the event as part of Great Tastes of Houston. Still, Christian says, the exposure was well worth the expense.

"There is no way we can pay for this kind of marketing," she says, citing the blip on cable television's Discovery Channel about the event and continuous coverage on the Houston Chronicle web site.

The folks at home certainly got the message, which may not burnish the city's global image but will help Houston Industries. The parent of HL&P is locked in a battle for the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of energy consumers and has been fighting to stave off deregulation and encroachment by such circling sharks as Enron. Unlike its energy sources, Houston Industries's glitzy public relations (subsidized, no doubt, by ratepayers)is renewable, and sources say plans are already under way for repeat performances through 1999.

That may overlap with plans for the city's celebration of the new millennium, which are already in the formative stages. Just how formative is a matter of dispute -- some vendors are already griping that JW Productions has the inside track and that they're going to get shut out of the party, which will probably be worth millions to the producer. Since the contract will be for services, it won't have to be competitively bid. The deal, the vendors claim, has already been done.

"That's wrong," responds Christian. "There has been no decision on anybody."
Christian says that talks about the millennium celebration have been going on for more than two years, though the only record she handed over in response to a request from the Press was a general two-page proposal from the Houston International Festival written in 1994. Christian had indicated that at least two more comprehensive proposals had been submitted, but later said she'd been mistaken. "There has been a lot of discussion," Christian says. "Nobody has brought anything concrete to me. Nothing in writing."

Asked if decisions about the city's millennium hoedown shouldn't be left to the next city administration, Christian says that may end up being the case.

"I'm just trying to do what's best for the city," she says.
Yes, we believe in the power of Houston, and we believe in the power of Susan Christian.

The Only Candidate with Long-term Memory Loss, Too
As far as we know, Lee Brown is the only mayoral candidate who's boasted of having "top-secret security clearance" from the U.S. government, an accreditation dating from his service as President Clinton's drug czar. Lately, Brown's been touting another unusual credential for the office: He's the only candidate to go on record claiming to have been the target of gunfire.

Brown's campaign apparently deems this an especially important entry on the former police chief's lengthy curriculum vitae, and is including it in the routine biographical thumbnail found on all of Brown's news releases.

"As a police officer, [Brown] twice came under gunfire from suspects he was investigating or apprehending," according to a release last week that otherwise was devoted to the candidate's "seven-point economic development plan."

This assertion piqued our curiosity, so we asked the Brown campaign for a few specifics on the ex-chief's experiences as a human target. Unfortunately, the candidate who once had access to classified material was a bit fuzzy when trying to recall the details, and we had no luck verifying the incidents with the San Jose, California police department, where Brown worked as a patrol officer in the 1960s before going on to better-paying deskbound work.  

"He doesn't remember the specific dates, and he even had trouble remembering some of the years," said campaign mouthpiece Don Payne. But Brown did recall that both incidents happened in San Jose, and that one of the shots was fired his way in 1966, Payne said.

Brown is also having trouble remembering the specifics of his own campaign platform. On September 9, at a forum sponsored by the Tax Research Association of Houston and Harris County, he trotted out a "six-point approach" to the city's transportation problems.

Less than two hours later, Brown appeared at a news conference at a Metro bus transfer center. Perhaps he was disoriented by the roar of the diesel engines, but Brown appeared not to notice that, since lunch, his transportation strategy had grown into an "eight-point plan" which, interestingly enough, was indistinguishable from the original incarnation.

A week later, Brown once again was asked how he might cut down on the amount of time Houstonians sit in traffic. "Well," said Brown, "I recently announced a seven-point plan...."

At press time, the size of Brown's most recent proposal -- his seven-point economic development plan -- remained unchanged.

Squeal of Fortune
So far, the Elyse Lanier-led Houston Image Group has managed to have its "Expect the Unexpected" message stamped on the cover of the local Yellow Pages while besieging Houstonians with all those commercials revealing "unexpected" facts about our city (we've already forgotten what those facts are ... must be Lee Brown's Disease).

But now comes Houston Image Group's coup de grace, one that's certain to quiet the skeptics: The Group has lured, if that's the correct verb, the syndicated television show Wheel of Fortune to shoot two weeks' worth of episodes here in our town, an event that no doubt will soon have sophisticates everywhere referring to Houston as "the Paris of Harris County," if not the "Milan of Southeast Texas."

But Vanna & Co. don't come cheap: Word is that the total cost of bringing the show to Houston is $1.2 million, and the show's producers expect Houston to cough up $300,000.

To that end, the Image Group has tapped the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau for $200,000 and has thrown in $100,000 of its own funds, says executive director Yolanda Londono. The 30-second spots on Wheel promoting Houston's amenities would have a commercial value of $3.5 million, Londono claims, so it's as though Houston is getting a 90 percent discount on prime-time advertising.

But is the Wheel of Fortune appropriation just another sign of the embattled GHCVB's imminent absorption by the Image Group? The bureau already has had to replace its slogan "The Real Texas" with the Image Group's "Expect the Unexpected," and with Elyse's favorite restaurateur, Tony Vallone, serving on the boards of both agencies -- and next in line to be chairman of the GHCVB -- there should be a smooth flow of policy and money, at least until the next mayor takes office.

The GHCVB became even more closely tied to the mayor's office and Elyse Lanier's wishes last week when Jordy Tollett, the city's director of convention and entertainment facilities, was named interim president and CEO of the bureau, a position that may become permanent.

Tollett will continue to draw his city salary and won't be paid by the GHCVB, which should come as a relief after the departure at the end of June of its high-flying president, Eddie Webster [see "Fast Eddie's Getaway," in the July 3 Press]. Tollett says he has not been asked to take the job on a permanent basis, but would consider it if he could run both the bureau and the city's convention and performing arts facilities, "and if we could save a quarter of a million dollars," that is, the cost of Webster's annual salary, benefits and expenses.

Next week, the bureau's contract with the city for $6 million in hotel/motel tax money comes up for City Council review. It was Tollett who commissioned the city audit that last spring brought the bureau's questionable expenses to light. Maybe some councilmember will ask Tollett how many tourists and conventions are likely to come to Houston because they saw the city on a television game show.

Doors of Perception
Several of the candidates for mayor are in agreement that City Hall lobbyists should be required to disclose the interests for which they're working, as legislative lobbyists must do on the state level. But we're waiting for the really forward-thinking candidate who'll come out in favor of requiring members of City Council to register as lobbyists.

Far-fetched, you say?Perhaps. But consider the case of Don Fitch: Shortly after designating a treasurer for his campaign for the at-large Position 1 seat on City Council, Fitch said he wouldn't be giving up his day job -- even if he won election.  

Fitch apparently saw nothing wrong in serving on Council while remaining the Houston-area vice president of public affairs for Browning-Ferris Industries, a major contractor with the city. Among Fitch's duties were doling out BFI's campaign contributions to elected city officials and candidates and schmoozing councilmembers on behalf of the multinational waste-disposal giant. In other words, Fitch was BFI's City Hall lobbyist, unregistered of course, although "lobbyist"is not a term that Fitch prefers.

Yet Fitch insisted his job at BFI wouldn't pose any conflict, saying he'd just retire to the sidelines when any issue of potential benefit to his employer came before Council.

"It's not right to have to take a large economic hit in order to run for public office if there is only a perception of conflict of interest, when there really isn't," Fitch told the Houston Business Journal back in early June.

Since then, four former or sitting councilmembers have been indicted for bribery and conspiracy, and although it's probably just a coincidence, the 67-year-old Fitch has concluded that it might be somewhat unseemly, not to mention impermissible under the city's ethics rules, for him to continue to work at BFI and serve on Council. So Fitch says that as of September 15 he's retired from BFI and "severed all connection" with the company, including unloading his stock in the corporation.

"I don't want to have any kind of perception or misunderstanding or just interpretation that I still have some kind of connection with BFI," says Fitch, who still has a recorded phone message at BFI's headquarters referring callers to his campaign office.

The Outsider was compiled by Michael Berryhill, Bob Burtman, Jim Simmon and Brian Wallstin. Tim Fleck and The Insider column are on vacation, but will return shortly. In the meantime, you can reach The Insider by calling (713) 624-1483 or (713) 624-1496 (fax).

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