The Insider

No Diving, No Swimming No Pool

The Bob and Elyse Lanier Aquatic Center at Moody Park was opened amid great fanfare last week, with the two namesakes of the new facility joining board members and high-ranking bureaucrats from the Parks and Recreation Department for the festivities.

The $1.2 million swimming pool project, funded by private donations, is designed to make Moody Park safe for the surrounding community and discourage drug use and drinking in the area, at least according to the city's promotional material. Apparently, by this reasoning, drug dealers and alkies are afraid of water and will try to avoid the smell of chlorine at all costs. The pool complex was also located on the far side of the park from the low-income Irvington Village housing project, on the theory, according to one supporter, that if the project residents can't see the pool, they will be less likely to crowd out users from nearby neighborhoods.

The private party ended before sundown, allowing the dignitaries plenty of time to pat themselves on the back and still clear out of the northside neighborhood before dark. Not a big topic at the gathering was the fact that although Moody Park now is home to a deluxe city swimming hole for aspiring little aquanauts, more than a quarter of the city's public pools are closed this summer, as the mayor's Parks to Standard juggernaut rolls forward. Considering that the pools are only open three months out of the year, you'd think someone could have designed a construction schedule that allowed for parks improvements without closing 12 pools in the process.

The dry holes include the pools at Memorial, MacGregor, Emancipation, Sharpstown, Sunnyside and Denver Harbor. The reasons behind the simultaneous closings vary according to the city official doing the talking.

Assistant parks director Susan Christian says that the top priorities on the Parks to Standard construction program were to minimize cost and construction time. Christian claims that renovating the pools separately from other parks improvements -- and thus keeping them functional in the summer -- would have cost more than bidding each park as a unit. Then several of the construction companies defaulted on their parks assignments, causing scheduled July pool openings to be delayed into next winter.

"You have to look at the projects as a whole, because that's how the contracts were let," says Christian, who adds that an advisory team concluded that the unit method "was the most efficient and cost-effective way to manage this $54 million renovation."

And, of course, the parks department wasn't responsible for coordinating the construction schedule. That honor, Christian says, goes to the public works department. "Public Works and Engineering manages all of our contracts and all of our work. We sat on the team, we've been working jointly with them, but they manage the program."

Public works spokesman Dan Jones doesn't quite see it that way. According to Jones, the pool drains to parks director Bill Smith's door. "That's basically his baby," says Jones.

As it turns out, when The Insider called Mayor Bob Lanier, he seemed more than willing to make the pool problem his own personal baby while conveniently deflecting the blame for the large number of summer closures.

To hear Lanier tell it, the pools had to be closed because they were dangerous -- a legacy of his predecessors, including that source of all bad things that have befallen the city, ex-mayor Kathy Whitmire, who allegedly failed to maintain the parks system during the city's economic downturn in the eighties.

"These 12 were shut down because they were felt to be unsafe," explains the mayor, who says city inspectors found faulty chlorine controls and filtration and circulation problems. Lanier says that until the Moody opening, it had been more than 20 years since the city had built a new pool.

Lanier admits that with so many pools out of service, more than 100,000 youngsters have been left hot and dry for the summer, a situation that requires an immediate remedy. So he began making inquiries into the situation last week, and discovered that an earlier city proposal to operate HISD pools to compensate for the city pool closings had gotten no response from district officials.

Lanier was flabbergasted. "I said, well, Jesus, why didn't somebody give me a call? I could call [Superintendent Rod] Paige, we're good friends, I think he'd do that in a shot." So the mayor phoned Paige, who immediately agreed to allow the city to use the district's pools.

"So we'll go ahead and see if we can do a matchup with them on pools to use," says Lanier, after spending an afternoon working on the problem. "We'll open 'em, operate 'em, pay for 'em, take responsibility for 'em." Lanier has scheduled a meeting this week to work out the details of the arrangement with HISD. In fact, for some unexplained reason, the mayor invited The Insider to sit in on the confab. We'll let you know if he asks HISD to temporarily rename any of its pools.

Now He's Working on the Railroad
When we last heard from him a few months ago, former congressman Steve Stockman was exhorting supporters gathered at the Houstonian complex to register Republican-minded voters for a challenge he planned to mount next year against Democratic incumbent Ken Bentsen in the 25th Congressional District.

But now the fickle Stockman has set a new political goal in life: a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission. A Republican colleague slipped the word to Nick Lampson, the Democrat who ousted Stockman last year, that he can now rest easy, since Stockman has established a fundraising committee, Stockman for State Wide Office, and won't be taking on Lampson in the 9th Congressional District.

One supporter, oil and gas publications publisher Janis Jamiesen-Johnson, is circulating a letter for Stockman claiming that polls show him easily beating Republican primary opponents for the Railroad Commission seat being vacated by Barry Williamson, who's running for state comptroller. "We followed Congressman Stockman's distinguished career, and saw how he fought for us and was a friend of the oil and gas industry," gushes Jamiesen-Johnson. "Because Steve fought for us in Congress, environmental extremists targeted him for defeat. Now I am asking you to stand with him."

Jamiesen-Johnson then exhorts the faithful to send checks to our favorite political home away from home, the Stockman abode at 2402 Whitman Way just outside of Friendswood.

Meanwhile, another familiar name has reared his fuzzy head again: Stockman crony Chris Cupit, whose Political Won Stop received a mother lode of the congressman's campaign cash while headquartered at 2402 Whitman Way. Cupit has fashioned a five-page computer-generated letter -- complete with fake handwriting script -- that tells us the true story of his hero, "an independent thinker with conviction, who always voted to do what was right."

Cupit also offers this revisionist history of the pivotal showdown between President Clinton and the GOP majority. "You may remember the winter of 1995-1996 when Bill Clinton shut down the government and the Republicans got all the blame." That's not quite what we remember, but after all, this is the world according to a Stockmanite. Continues Cupit: "What really happened was that Bill Clinton wanted to take a 'diplomatic' trip to Japan and he selfishly needed the government open before he could travel. So, he asked the Republicans to pass yet another bill to temporarily reopen the government for a few weeks so he could travel at taxpayer expense."

Stockman, notes Cupit, was only one of three conservatives to vote against reopening the government. According to Cupit, the decision to reopen the government led to the resurgence of Clinton and his re-election. Concludes Cupit: "I honestly believe that if Steve Stockman's advice had been followed, Bill Clinton would not have made the incredible political recovery that rehabilitated his career."

Now it can be told: If only party leaders had listened to Steve Stockman, Bob Dole would be sitting in the White House today.

But never fear, says Cupit, it's not too late to elect Stevie Stockman to some office. "I believe Steve is willing to run," confides Cupit, "but he is hesitant, being an accountant, in that he first wants to pay off the bills from this last election. And to pay off the bills, he needs your help. A gift of $1,000, $500 or $250 would be magnificent."

And so it begins again.

A Bite with Sly
Sighted at a side table at Irma's last week were none other than mayoral candidate Rob Mosbacher and state Representative Sylvester Turner, who recently summoned the media to his law office to announce that he wouldn't be a candidate in this year's contest. According to campaign sources, Mosbacher invited Turner to lunch to discuss his issues in the race, including improving public education. Turner, you may recall, used his press conference swan song to twit candidates who seemed, according to Sly, to be running for HISD superintendent rather than mayor.

No word on any long-range fallout from the lunch, though more than a few observers are betting Turner will eventually support anybody but Lee Brown for mayor. The Brown campaign, after all, has become a class reunion of all the Lanier operatives who helped defeat Turner in 1991.

"Sylvester's sort of the Mike Tyson of Houston politics," chuckles one former associate. "He's so vindictive he'd do anything to sabotage Lee Brown."

Turner later told a radio interviewer he plans chow-downs with other mayoral contenders, including a lunch with Helen Huey and maybe even breakfast with Brown. In that case, the ex-chief best watch his ears.

So Nice to See You Again...
University of Houston alum Jorge Rangel, now a Corpus Christi lawyer, is the prime contender for the presidential nomination to an opening on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Unfortunately for Rangel, who is currently undergoing an FBI background check, a little bit of past history may trip him on the way to the federal bench.

As a member of an American Bar Association screening board prior to 1994, Rangel had been particularly critical of the nomination of Jeff Sessions, a former U.S. Attorney in Alabama under consideration for a federal bench. Sessions had earned the ire of Democrats for leading a Republican effort in the state to prosecute African-American civil rights leaders for ballot fraud, a move seen as an attempt to intimidate blacks and hold down Democratic turnout at the polls. Sessions, the son of former FBI director William Sessions, did not receive the appointment, but went on to win election to the U.S. Senate. He's now a member of the Judiciary Committee, which votes on judicial appointments, including the one for which Rangel is in line. According to our sources, Sessions is gunning for Rangel as a result of that past encounter, and he may have help from Texas Senator Phil Gramm, who also remembers Rangel's criticism of some of his judicial recommendations under Republican administrations.

If Rangel does fall victim to a Senate blackball, the backup list of candidates includes three Houstonians: U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gillmore, federal Magistrate Calvin Botley and Murry Cohen of the state First Court of Appeals.

Free Money at the Track
The city of Houston and other Harris County municipalities could be collecting a state-authorized tax of up to 15 cents per attendee from the Charles Hurwitz-controlled Sam Houston Race Park, and all they've got to do is ask the county to collect it. In fact, County Judge Robert Eckels has been sitting on a request from the city to do so for more than a year.

Richard Lewis, the city's director of finance and administration, wrote Eckels in January 1996 asking that he take steps to begin collecting the tax, which would be in addition to the 15 cents per head already collected by the county for itself. Curiously, Eckels did not respond to the request until queried by CPA Andrew Kreston, who has been campaigning since 1995 to get the city to collect its rightful tax from the horse track. Eckels had initially informed Kreston that the city was not interested in collecting the tax. According to a more recent letter from Eckels to Kreston, Lewis's letter did not prompt any action because, according to the judge, it was not an "official request" from "the governing body of the city." A majority of the 34 municipalities in Harris County must request the fee imposition in order for the county to be legally empowered to collect it.

Kreston has now asked the City Council to vote on the matter, but has received no response. You'd think somebody on the Council would be interested in voting to pick up some of that Hurwitz spare change, estimated at $44,000 a year, for the taxpayers.

Let The Insider know by calling 624-1483 or 624-1496 (fax), or by e-mailing him at Insider@houston-press.com.

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