The Six-Year Itch
Two weeks from now, all city department heads will submit their resignations to incoming mayor Bill White. The three-term limit on the city's top elective position has effectively created the window for an administrative purging every six years, with the new chief executive able to dispose of unpopular directors in a bloodless, civilized fashion.
Given the departing Lee Brown's well-documented reluctance to fire subordinates, the amount of deadwood that's accumulated in the city hierarchy during his mayoral tenure could fuel a sizable bonfire of the vanities once White takes over. Some folks already got the message and moved on, like former chief administrative officer Al Haines. He's laboring overseas to rebuild Iraq, having learned by trial and error via the street reconstruction fiasco in downtown Houston.
Jim Young, the last in the long line of Brown press spokespeople who toiled mostly in vain to explain their enigmatic boss to the public, will enter the private sector next month. His reported landing pad: the SimDesk computer outfit that won that controversial city contract to supply software.
Young wouldn't comment on whether he's SimDesk-bound but says he feels a sense of accomplishment in having lasted to the end. He told his wife when he took the job that "you put on a sweatshirt with a bull's-eye on the back." He added: "My goal is not only to have a positive impact but, more fundamentally, to survive the end of the administration."
The communications director job in the new administration is still wide open. White campaign spokesman Myra Jolivet, who was also Kathy Whitmire's head flack when she was mayor, has been there, done that, and plans to head back to the private sector.
Who goes, who stays and who joins the new City Hall crew will be the parlor game of choice for the politically bored in the coming months, at least until the spring primary contests start thawing out.
"I intend to work hard every day in putting together a team that is diverse and effective," White says during a hectic transition period before he's sworn into office January 2.
"There will be change. I'm getting feedback about each of the individual departments, and often I've asked people to grade how they think departments are doing at the city."
White campaign manager Michael Moore has been with him for years, including a stint at the Department of Energy. He'll stick around at City Hall, possibly as chief of staff. Attorney Richard Lapin, another key member of the campaign, also will be in the administration in some capacity.
Mayoral agenda director Marty Stein, considered one of the most personable and competent members of Brown's staff, has been discussing her future with the mayor-elect. Others likely to come aboard include White campaign staffer Jose Soto.
During his campaign, White showed the back of his hand to only one city department head, indicating that then-fire chief Chris Connealy would be history if White won. Connealy took the hint and resigned, with acting chief Hector Trevino now keeping that seat warm.
"There's a lack of morale in the fire department, and there's some highly qualified people," says White diplomatically. "I'm not criticizing any person as an individual, but there's a need for change there. And the same will be true in a number of other departments."
White says his philosophy is "make changes quickly, and don't let people linger, speculating what their future will be." That makes him a practitioner from the "put 'em out of their misery quick" school of personnel management.
Supporters of Assistant Fire Chief Raul Reyes, who writes a column in the This Week section of the Houston Chronicle plumping fire safety, are pushing their man for the top fire job. A long shot is former fire chief Lester Tyra, whom Brown pushed out in what administration insiders privately labeled a blunder.
The position of police chief has been symbolically important in every Houston administration, and was a defining moment for Whitmire when she brought in Lee Brown from Atlanta. It's unlikely acting chief Joe Breshears will get the permanent post. Houston has had a female as well as several African-American chiefs, so a logical appointment in pursuit of diversity would be a Latino, though there are no strong candidates within the department. The recent police shootings of Hispanic youths is also an argument in that direction. White may have to call in the national headhunters on this one.
Flushing out department directors is among the ways for a new mayor to solidify power. Term limits result in a comparatively rapid turnover at the mayor's office, so longtime city bureaucrats have gained influence by developing independent relationships with councilmembers, sometimes secretly lobbying behind the mayor's back for favored projects and funding. Bringing in fresh faces is an effective method to cut down on that kind of back-channel chatter.
A quick Insider poll of City Hall veterans came up with a consensus that the administrators with the best chance to be retained on White's team are solid waste director Thomas "Buck" Buchanan and public works director Jon Vanden Bosch. The former got high marks for the cleanup after Tropical Storm Allison, while Vanden Bosch restored relative order after several years of anarchy in the department.
On the other hand, White promised in his campaign to cut the management costs of city construction contracts. That commitment, plus the fact that Vanden Bosch is nearing retirement age, could mandate a search for a new public works director.
With Haines gone, finance and administration director Phil Scheps is given a good chance to find his footing in the new order. "He's a very valuable person to keep in any administration because he has a way of delivering the facts, the bad news, that Haines never would," explains a City Hall observer.
Major department directors most likely to retire or be replaced are City Attorney Anthony Hall, health director Mary desVignes-Kendrick, parks director Roksan Okan-Vick and library director Barbara Gubbin.
Lawyer Roland Garcia is one of the names being mentioned for the city attorney post. While Hall will leave the post, several sources say he'll stay in the new administration in some other capacity.
Okan-Vick's future isn't helped by the recently published study on citizen dissatisfaction with the state of the parks system. Librarian Gubbin has had poor relations with City Council. Councilman Michael Berry, when he ran for mayor, singled out Gubbin as the first city director he'd fire if elected.
Over at Metro, feisty president Shirley DeLibero's contract expires in April. Nobody, including White, expects her or board chairman Arthur Schechter to stick around to supervise the expansion of the rail system pioneered here under Brown.
"I know that the chairman intends to move on to other things, and so does the president," says White, although he admits he hasn't talked to DeLibero directly about her plans. "We need to have people on the board and in senior management positions who could help us build more of a consensus in our community behind mass transit."
A Metro source says if there's a replacement from within, John Sedlak would likely get the nod. He's an agency vice president and considered a good communicator who maintained solid relations with both sides in the rail debate.
During his campaign for mayor, White opposed Schechter's and DeLibero's efforts to press for a larger rail proposal, rather than the phased construction referendum that voters narrowly approved. One of the architects of the compromise was developer Walter Mischer Jr., who chaired the transportation committee for the Greater Houston Partnership.
Mischer's father is a legendary Houston political kingmaker and campaign contributor, and he and his son raised thousands of dollars for White's mayoral effort.
A willingness by the junior Mischer to do the dirty work in dragging both antirail troglodytes and Mayor Brown into the deal has fueled rumors he's in line to succeed Schechter as Metro chair. Other names in the hopper include businessman Ed Wulfe, who chaired the Metro campaign, and auto dealer George DeMontrond, who also supported the rail plan.
Mischer says he's not seeking the unpaid position and has not talked with White or anyone else about an appointment.
"If I were approached in any capacity, I'd have to do some serious thinking about it because of the time requirement," says Mischer. He runs Wheatstone Investments, which developed The Park at Memorial, the posh gated community of single homes and town houses west of downtown.
"I don't know what I'd say," comments Mischer. "It's a big job, and I've already got a big job."
If White does call on Mischer, The Insider is betting the developer will find the offer very hard to refuse.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.