It's a mid-afternoon Tuesday in the late-summer doldrums at Houston City Hall.
A wheelchair-bound woman rails to City Council about the local Multiple Sclerosis Society failing to provide financial services for patients like herself. It's a medical issue, so -- to the surprise of absolutely no one on council -- freshman member Dr. Shelley Sekula-Gibbs hones in like a buzz bomb with questions that go nowhere. Then she gets defensive on behalf of associations that deal with incurable diseases.
A minister's wife rises from the audience and comes to the podium to complain about sewage backing up in her church. Councilmembers listen respectfully, and most leave the matter to the woman's district councilmember, Carol Galloway. But one, Sekula-Gibbs, just can't resist offering her own concern and comments on the subject.
A shoe-shop owner protests selective landgrabs in the widening of San Felipe in the Galleria area. It's not really Sekula-Gibbs's turf, or issue, but she just has to offer more sympathy.
"Sir, this is a situation some of us are not as familiar with as you are," she begins. A colleague later wisecracks that she could begin all of her comments that way.
Sekula-Gibbs is back at it again, doing what she does best -- or worst -- by stretching out another lengthy public session like soft taffy on a sunbaked sidewalk. It's not that other councilmembers don't speak frequently or ask questions. They just don't do it all the time with everybody.
Veteran councilmembers no longer even bother to roll their eyes at the barrage of questions and comments flowing from the 49-year-old dermatologist from Clear Lake. For them, seven months of togetherness with her has become as predictable and depressing as the heat.
Sekula-Gibbs was elected last fall largely on the name recognition of her second husband, the late KHOU television anchor Sylvan Rodriguez. Once in office, she quickly ditched that politically user-friendly surname after marrying Robert Gibbs, a Reliant Energy executive she was dating during the campaign.
Fellow councilmembers mutter that, no matter what her name, they'd like to clamp a meter on her mouth. They can't really dislike her. In front of the Municipal Channel cameras, she's a regular Spindletop, gushing niceties and concern by the barrel.
Sekula-Gibbs seems oblivious to the snickers and snide comments generated by what some see as her grandstanding. She says it's all about pushing her agenda for public health, which she defines so broadly that it includes air quality, the environment and transportation.
Of course, it's also all about Shelley, the neophyte politician whose previous public exposure consisted mostly of being a regular on the gala circuit for medical groups. A health department source acidly describes her City Hall rampage as "democracy by Junior League."
She says her comments are only an attempt to aid constituents.
"It's that maternal instinct I have to want to help," explains Sekula-Gibbs. "I have a great passion to try and help people. If I don't understand a situation, then I feel a need to understand, because I can't help if I don't understand."
While some councilmembers describe her as earnest, they note that her remarks during meetings are uninformed and even "off the wall."
"She thinks it's part of her responsibility to explain things to people watching council meetings," says a council staffer. "She wants to save everybody who comes to City Hall. It's the doctor thing. She thinks she can cure everyone."
But before Sekula-Gibbs takes on the ills of Houston, a chorus of municipal voices suggests she better first address a few politically dysfunctional symptoms of her own.
Sekula-Gibbs was among five freshmen councilmembers sworn into office in January. She and Michael Berry are the new at-large members elected citywide. Joining them are Ada Edwards of District D (see "Adept Ada"), Addie Wiseman of District E and Carol Alvarado of District I. Berry and Sekula-Gibbs have no previous City Hall experience, while Wiseman and Alvarado have worked for other elected city officials. Edwards, in her role as a Third Ward-based community activist, has collaborated with municipal officials and their staffs on numerous issues for decades.
Edwards and Alvarado generally side with Mayor Brown. The other three are Republicans who mostly vote with the conservative bloc. Sekula-Gibbs's grandstanding role has been shared at times by Berry. He recently enraged black supporters by declaring he wanted to run for mayor and by voting against a largely ceremonial resolution to support a commission on reparations for descendants of slaves. State Representative Sylvester Turner, a former Berry backer and mayoral aspirant himself, denounced the councilman as a traitor. Nation of Islam minister Quanell X said he was publicly revoking Berry's "ghetto pass."
By contrast, Shelley is just gunning for the city's top doc job. She goes to great pains to make sure everyone knows she's the only doctor on the 15-member body. "As a physician" is one of her favorite introductory clauses. Since running for office on a "healthy Houston" platform, she's hit the city's Department of Health and Human Services with a blizzard of memos and requests that include asking that it prepare slideshows and PowerPoint presentations for her.
She has had achievements in the first six months, most notably sponsoring a budget amendment to restore $1.5 million to the health department for clinic services. She also pushed a pilot project to stem the tide on nonemergency calls for city ambulances by providing alternate forms of transport. Still, her successes have been overshadowed by her public pronouncements.
Her personnel choices were questioned when her first chief of staff, Raul Castillo, bowed out rather quickly in February. He was busted at a porn shop and charged with exposing himself to a male undercover officer. Her current chief of staff, Marene Gustin, previously an aide for former councilman Orlando Sanchez, has been working hard on damage control. The skills of Gustin (who has also been a Houston Press freelancer) are needed.
Everybody seems to have their favorite Sekula-Gibbs anecdote. A department head remembers when the councilwoman informed the mayor that the city should stop stringing electric lines on poles. Brown had to explain that the city doesn't do electrical poles. "That's not our job," he said. "That's HL&P." According to the source, Sekula-Gibbs was adamant, saying, "Well, I want to do something to make sure they do not ever put another electrical pole above ground."
"Shelley is driving us all nuts," comments an exasperated colleague. "She's Miss Know-It-All. She has to say something about everything. If it has any remote connection to anything medical, she has to hold it up so she can examine it and put her two cents in. Not that there's not problems in the health department, but she wants to micromanage the place."
A lobbyist who has worked with the new councilmembers rates her at the bottom of the list.
"I think Shelley's pretty much out to lunch. She was smart enough to get out of medical school, but like a lot of doctors, she's developed an arrogance about thinking that her intelligence in one field automatically transfers over to another. She's made a lot of stupid statements and done a lot of stupid things."
By contrast, the same source lauds Edwards and Alvarado as the pick of the new litter.
"Ada and Carol are the most savvy and easiest to work with. You don't get their vote on everything, but they've been in politics and community affairs a long time, and they know the drill. They are a lot more open-minded about things than some of the others."
A veteran colleague expressed frustration over having to sit through what amounts to a weekly tutorial on municipal government for the sake of Sekula-Gibbs.
"She's very, very passionate about her causes, but I just don't know if she has the time to do her homework," says the councilmember. "A lot of times the answers to her questions are in her briefing materials. I don't know if she's just not being briefed correctly or doesn't have the time to read it. But if you don't know about it, why don't you read about it before you get to the meetings? Don't waste our time being educated here."
Few sources were willing to be quoted by name in frankly discussing Sekula-Gibbs and other officials. They explain that they have to either work with them or seek their support in council votes. But among those insiders interviewed for this article, there was an almost unanimous verdict that Sekula-Gibbs is this year's premier poster girl for what's wrong with the term-limits system.
The law restricts elected city officials to a maximum of three two-year terms, so every two years at least a third of the experienced officeholders are flushed out of their jobs. This system encourages instability through political musical chairs, with councilmembers jumping for the higher positions of mayor or controller whenever the incumbent is forced out.
City races are officially nonpartisan. However, the term-limits rule has encouraged incumbents to stake out positions as Democrats or Republicans with an eye ahead to county, state or federal races, where strong party identity is a must. What's good for the city sometimes takes a backseat to what's good for a political future.
Since term limits began forcing out Houston officeholders in 1995, with each succeeding cycle the pool of prospective city candidates has gotten thinner and thinner in terms of municipal government experience. It has reached the point where political unknowns with any claim to fame at all -- like a TV anchor's widow with a temporary Hispanic surname -- can find themselves in office, with a staff and an open microphone on the Municipal Channel.
In Sekula-Gibbs's case, election to council merely set the stage for a bigger, behind-the-scenes campaign to claim top physician status with the city.
Last December, even before she was sworn in, Sekula-Gibbs went into a meeting that would trigger tensions that continue today. Her session was with the city's Health and Human Services director, Dr. Mary des Vignes-Kendrick. The strong-willed executive was appointed by former mayor Bob Lanier a decade ago and is used to running her fiefdom without undue interference from councilmembers. Friction was clear from the outset.
As a doctor, Sekula-Gibbs told Kendrick, she expected a special relationship with the department. She asked for a confidential briefing on the city's efforts against bioterrorism and requested that department staffers prepare a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation on the subject, one that the councilmember could deliver to parents and teachers at a Clear Creek school. Sekula-Gibbs also stunned officials by bringing along a file on one of her patients at Clear Lake Hospital and asking that the case be analyzed for possible botulism poisoning.
"She just blurted out some fairly confidential information about one of her patients," confirms an administration source. "It was an inappropriate venue to even be discussing any of her patients. If she suspected any of her patients had that kind of poisoning, well, 'Doctor, you know the procedure for getting this investigated.' "
(Sekula-Gibbs insists that account is "totally inaccurate" and that she simply alerted the health department to a potential case of food poisoning at the hospital. She says the case did not involve any of her patients and she revealed no confidential information in referring it to the city.)
Health department officials also balked at providing what they considered confidential information for her community presentations. Dr. Shelley got her hackles up.
"While I appreciate your interest in security," she wrote Kendrick, "as a council member and colleague physician in a 'need to know' position, I have an interest in viewing the presentation as is. I fail to understand your reluctance in accommodating my request. I am not foreign to the issue of security by any means."
The developing game of "my stethoscope is bigger than yours" continued with the health director's reply.
"Because of the nature and sensitivity of this information," Kendrick said, she declined to release it until she got an opinion from the city attorney and the police chief. Speech preparations were also nixed. She tried to shut the door on the councilwoman with "please note that this department is neither staffed, nor funded to provide this service to council offices. We will be unable to meet further requests for presentation materials."
Sekula-Gibbs didn't take long to strike back, telling the director she "would have hoped for a more reciprocal recognition of my scope of interest and responsibility as a member of city council." She then informed the director that henceforth she would be taking her concerns directly to Mayor Brown.
Clearly, a struggle between the city's two doctor doyennes was under way. In an exasperated response, Kendrick listed responses to more than a dozen requests from the councilwoman. "This department does not have a speakers bureau," she commented. "I look forward to a working relationship that acknowledges the respective roles and responsibilities of your council office and this department."
More clashes came when the councilwoman bypassed the director's office and began contacting health department personnel herself. "It puts them in a very precarious position because they know what protocols are," a department source says. "It's made it difficult to work with her. You can never tell where she's shooting."
The spectacle of a dermatologist trying to micromanage a public health department comes off to some staffers as a bad joke. Laughs one: "To my knowledge there are no public health issues related to dermatology, unless rosacea comes out as a nationwide epidemic."
Sekula-Gibbs's weekly recitations during council's pop-off sessions, when members bring up topics of their choice, also draws guffaws.
"Very frequently she will just read or refer to an article that has come out on the health page of the Houston Chronicle, and act as if she's bringing it up on her own," says a colleague. "We're like, 'All right, we've all read the page, it's in the paper and it's public knowledge. You're not really teaching us anything.' It's comical."
Even the councilwoman's amendment to restore $1.5 million to the health department budget draws minimal praise from administration sources, who claim it would have happened regardless of her. That is undercut by the fact that the department has repeatedly suffered budget reductions over the past few years.
Fellow councilmembers are quick to point out that after Sekula-Gibbs's amendment passed in the morning, she vanished from City Hall and was not there for the budget vote in the late afternoon. She later explained she had to accompany a college-aged daughter to an appointment to have her wisdom teeth removed. Particularly chagrined were conservatives who had counted on her vote to pass their own amendments and a tax rollback proposal by Berry.
"Some of us were just totally flummoxed when she didn't show up for the budget vote in the second half of the day," says one councilmember. "That is so 'not Shelley,' the high-achieving Miss Know-It-All blowing off the budget? We were sitting there with our mouths open."
According to Sekula-Gibbs, she told several councilmembers she would be absent. "I didn't hear any clapping, but I also didn't hear anybody say, 'No, don't go.' Not a single person."
A trace of irritation enters her voice. "I was never approached by Michael Berry to discuss that. So all of the previous dialogue that he had apparently discussed in his own mind with himself about how it would all play out was unknown to me. So I really don't have any comment about his proposal."
Her strife with the health department appeared again last month with her request for information about a lead-poisoning screening initiative. Kendrick sent her response to the chair of the Neighborhood Protection and Quality of Life Committee, Councilmember Annise Parker, who has lately been the unenviable buffer zone between the city's top docs.
"I think they're both a little bit wrong and a little bit right," Parker says diplomatically. She notes that there's nothing inappropriate about a councilmember trying to get information from a department employee. Kendrick has a policy that information goes through her office before being released to council or the public.
According to Parker, if every councilmember emulated Sekula-Gibbs's memo blizzard, "you'd have gridlock over there."
"They already spend a lot of time chasing their tails when councilmembers get a wild hair about something and demand a research project and so forth," she says.
Parker says she can also understand the health department's frustration with the freshman councilmember.
"Dr. Kendrick has been hit by so many things which sound like criticism: 'Why haven't you been doing this?' 'Why haven't you been doing that?' 'We need to do this' and 'You need to be with this person.' She's throwing up her hands and saying, 'Whoa, I have a department to run. I can't be at your beck and call. There needs to be a more orderly process to this.'"
While Parker credits Sekula-Gibbs with good intentions, she adds, "She needs to work through and with the mayor. Because Kendrick doesn't work for us, she works for the mayor and works at the pleasure of the mayor."
Kendrick accented the positive in commenting on the first six months of life with Sekula-Gibbs.
"Certainly we're just starting out our working relationship, and she has indicated to me that she wants to work with me to bring increased attention to public health issues," comments the health director. "I am going to take her at her word on that, and I am going to work with her the best I can."
"I've always had that take-charge attitude," says Sekula-Gibbs during a break between an ethics committee meeting and council's afternoon session. "If you can't do it better than me, then go ahead and move over and I'll do it. I like people to come up with good ideas, and then let's all get together and be innovative."
The councilwoman is the eldest of six children born to parents of German, Polish and Czech extraction in Floresville, southeast of San Antonio. Her father was an oil field worker, and she was the first in her family to graduate from college, let alone medical school.
She excelled at sports in high school, claims to have been the first girl to wear pants there, and was president of her class for two years. She won a scholarship to Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio and says she initially planned to become a PE coach. While attending the Catholic all-girl institution, she got to know a public health clinic director named Marion Primomo. She credits that friendship with influencing her toward medicine.
"She changed me, without even knowing it," the councilwoman explains. "Years later I told her, and we laughed about it, about how much of an impact you can have on somebody and not even speak about the subject -- just the way you conduct yourself and you help people."
After getting her degrees from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and Baylor College of Medicine, Sekula-Gibbs started a clinic in Clear Lake. She had two children in her first marriage to Allen Greenberg. She kept the kids after their divorce. Greenberg moved to Corpus Christi, and they both remarried. He drowned in a bay near Corpus several years ago.
For the better part of two decades, Sekula-Gibbs has run her life and dermatology practice while building contacts that prepared her for the council race.
One associate at City Hall notes that physicians rarely become politicians because the required skills are usually in conflict. "She's a typical doctor," the associate says. "She's very analytical, very scientific, and is used to being in complete control."
Sekula-Gibbs has an Rx for everything. She also has a trademark habit of simply ignoring what she doesn't want to acknowledge. If she's not the city's top doc yet, she's got the inside track for the title of Queen of Denial.
To hear Sekula-Gibbs tell it, she has no problems with the health department, Kendrick or anyone else. Everything, it seems, is going swimmingly. Presented with a stack of memos documenting the written barbs and crossed wires between her and the health director, she manages a winning smile.
"I respect Dr. Kendrick greatly. She is a public health physician, she has her master's in public health, and I do not. I am not a public health doctor and don't claim to be, but I have experience in academia and private practice, and I have a great interest and support her work in public health."
As for the dispute over bioterrorism presentations, she says, "Perhaps people at the health department had to be sure that I was going to guard the security of their plans. And that took a certain amount of time for me to understand the gravity of the situation and for them to understand my willingness to support them in maintaining that security."
"I think we're developing our working relationship," Kendrick says tactfully. "Hopefully that will become even more positive over time."
Sekula-Gibbs insists that the health department has been supportive and that it has taken a while to find the right information sources there. "Like your business, you have to know where to go to obtain the information."
It's the same approach Sekula-Gibbs took during the campaign when stepson Sylvan "Bobby" Rodriguez III denounced her as a political opportunist who used his dead father's name to generate public sympathy and votes. Bobby Rodriguez claimed she had planned a vacation in Mexico while her husband was dying of cancer, and she used family estate money to renovate the Clear Lake home she now shares with her latest husband.
Sekula-Gibbs said she used her own money for the home renovation and attributed her stepson's resentment to grief over his father's death. Likewise, she says Sylvan's mother, who died recently of surgical complications, was understanding of her decision to drop the Rodriguez surname.
Her stepson, a University of Houston student, says the bitterness toward his stepmother has diminished, although he still believes she exploited his father's name and persona for political purposes.
"Hopefully people see now what kind of woman she is," says Rodriguez. "I'm still convinced of everything I said before election night, but I'm getting on with my life, and she's getting on with hers. I hope she has a happy marriage and it's a marriage out of love."
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Others may argue that she's wedded to the council microphone, but Sekula-Gibbs seems oblivious to that criticism.
"I've always been a questioner," she laughs. "If I would ever get in trouble in school, it would be because I was the one who was asking too many questions."
Even her worst council critics hold out hope that once she completes City Government 101, things will improve. "Eventually she'll slow down," says one. "She's just -- how shall I put it? -- extremely exuberant." A City Hall veteran adds, perhaps with too much optimism, that "one day she may be a hell of an elected official."
That day isn't here yet, but perhaps some relief is on the way. Advised of the complaints, the councilwoman allows, "I appreciate the concerns, and I will take that under advisement."