Fed up with the Brown administration's unwillingness or inability to manage the tax-cut battle at City Hall, a "mod squad" of three moderate councilmembers moved this week to take the high ground from the mostly conservative Tax Rollback Eight. Win or lose, they offer an alternative to the bloc led by District F Councilman Mark Ellis that rammed the property tax reduction past the mayor's protests last month.
At the center of the mod squadders are At-large Councilwoman Annise Parker, who has emerged as one of the most reasoned voices on council on the tax issue, and freshman District H Councilman Gabriel Vasquez, an up-and-comer who drafted the compromise proposal. Both voted with the mayor against the rollback, but seek middle ground in the escalating partisan fight. First-term At-large Councilman Gordon Quan joined in pushing the deal to reduce the property tax rollback to one cent, while coupling it with a raft of budgetary reforms.
Parker had flown back from an economic development trip to Australia and a quick scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef in time to vote against the rollback. She denounced the Republican-backed initiative as a subversion of the budget process that council conducted last summer. The rollback passed 8-7, and the mayor's team proved incapable of crafting a compromise to avert deep budget cuts. So Parker went looking for allies and a middle passage through the controversy.
John Castillo, the chair of the council fiscal affairs committee, approached Parker with a suggestion. Castillo explained that Brown was not going to negotiate; to avoid service cuts and financial disruption, independent councilmembers needed to launch an initiative. Parker recalls Castillo urging, "Someone's going to have to step up; the mayor's not going to do it."
Vasquez, the writer in the group, had already begun drafting his own proposal.
"I knew Annise had been talking to councilmembers individually, and we had been working independently of each other," he says. "We connected and shared information and began to work together."
The pair approached Quan, who immediately agreed to help sponsor the compromise.
"We wanted it to come from three of us in the middle of council," explains Parker. "If this truly was going to be a compromise, it had to be councilmembers who were seen as more independent in the middle."
Parker suggested that the compromise "needed four, maybe five things at the most -- not a lot of moving parts." Vasquez drafted the final version.
"We took everything that we heard, and things that we wanted to see, and put the bait on a lot of different hooks to see which ones they bite on," Parker says. She also ran each element of the compromise past Al Haines, Brown's chief administrative officer.
The compromise calls for lowering the tax rate to 65.5 cents per $100 assessed value, a smaller reduction than the 64.67 cents mandated by the rollback vote. The attached "hooks" require the city to switch to a zero-based budget that must justify ongoing expenditures each year; a $5 million emergency fund; a 1 percent reduction in city general fund spending by November 10; an increase in the property tax break for seniors; and a taxpayer dividend to be paid from any surpluses, effective in the year 2002.
"I would call Haines and say, "Al, I'm not going to tell you what we're doing over here, but what would be the effect of "x'?" Parker says. "So we weren't operating completely in the dark, but the mayor had no idea what he was going to be presented with until we gave it to him."
Councilman Chris Bell, a Democrat who voted for the tax rollback, suspects that the compromise is simply an attempt to get Brown out of a political ditch. He calls it a desperation move on the part of the administration to try to save face after the tax cut vote. "The three people who are proposing it all voted with the administration," Bell adds.
"There are some people who think that way, and that's unfortunate," retorts Vasquez. "I'd be happy to show you the drafts I went through to write this. The Brown administration did not write this at all."
In fact, Brown's people were not enthusiastic, especially about the plan for a future tax dividend, Parker says. Nevertheless, the mayor agreed to the compromise and called a special council session for it.
To accommodate District C Councilman Mark Goldberg, the mayor scheduled an unusual nighttime session. That allows Goldberg, who is Jewish, to avoid encroaching on Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday that ends at sunset Monday. That decision puts Goldberg at the meeting and therefore on the hot seat, since several influential supporters had been pressing him to reverse his vote for the rollback.
The compromise plan marks a turning point in relations between the mayor and council supporters. They've decided he simply isn't strong enough to carry the ball against the conservative opposition.
Just before 1 a.m. Tuesday, the council's special session ended with an 8-7 vote in favor of the compromise tax rate. Councilman Carroll Robinson deserted the Rollback Eight even though the fiscal reform package was mostly delayed, with only a $5 million "rainy day" fund winning approval. Still, Vasquez views the vote as a step away from partisan gridlock.
"I didn't run for council to be part of one of two sides," says Vasquez. "Egos, confrontation and polarization are real high, and we just have to flat rise above that."
Reyes Goes to Club Fed
Former city councilman Ben Reyes has moved out of state to better digs, but he's still serving his nine-year prison sentence for bribery and conspiracy in the City Hall sting. The 52-year-old Reyes sought and received a transfer from a federal prison in Beaumont to a satellite minimum-security camp at Jesup, Georgia, a rural area north of Savannah.
While the move takes Reyes a long way from his family in Houston, Jessup is described as a more relaxed, more bucolic facility than Beaumont. The Georgia facility houses 300 white-collar criminals and drug convicts. Jessup spokesman Ron Doeblin says Reyes is working as a "unit orderly," which is a fancy term for janitor.
Left behind in Beaumont is former GOP judicial kingmaker George Bishop, the husband of district Judge Caprice Cosper. Bishop turned 59 in prison last week. He initially worked in the motor pool but is now doing housekeeping. The release date from his 18-month term for tax evasion is set for the end of next year.
Meanwhile, Reyes's co-defendant Betti Maldonado serves her four-year sentence at a federal facility in Fort Worth. Attorney Dick DeGuerin reports that she initially did janitorial work but is now tutoring fellow prisoners for their high school graduate equivalent diplomas. "She's got a job now that's a little bit more productive," says the lawyer. "She says it's fulfilling and gratifying and she's making the best of it that she can."
Early next month DeGuerin will present Maldonado's appeal before the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court in New Orleans. DeGuerin will argue that federal agents entrapped the former port commissioner.
E-mail from Chuckie
Ward Larkin was just looking for some campaign chitchat when he e-mailed district attorney candidate Chuck Rosenthal at his campaign Web page. "I'm unconditionally opposed to capital punishment," Larkin wrote. "Why should I vote for you?"
To his surprise, Larkin received a reply from the assistant district attorney, direct from his county computer. Rosenthal advised that Larkin was entitled to his opinion. "I am in favor of the death penalty for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I believe the death penalty is Biblical."
Larkin countered that slavery was also biblical but not in current favor. Rosenthal, presumably writing from his desk in the D.A.'s office, went on to explain, "I am the only candidate in the race that has the experience to lead the prosecutors in this office. A vote for me is a vote for good government. The District Attorney's Office must remain independent from politics and just to all."
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Larkin pointed out the contradiction that Rosenthal was using his county office equipment to spread the message of good government and no political involvement. Then Rosenthal answered archly: "All time spent in and out of this office is not done on "county time' nor is county property used without approval."
Actually Rosenthal was violating the county guidelines against e-mail use "for purposes not directly related to the duties or responsibilities of the County department before, after, or during normal business hours." The ban on "use for any personal profit" might also apply since Rosenthal's election would provide a considerable promotion and increase in salary.
"I may have slipped up and done that once," Rosenthal admitted to The Insider last week. He denied reports that he routinely uses the office fax to send campaign material under the tag "Get on the Chuckwagon!" He said most of his campaign e-mailing is done from the home computer of supporter John Ray Harrison.
"I haven't used the office equipment to do that," Rosenthal insisted. "Johnny [Holmes] frowns on that." D.A. Holmes was out of town and unavailable for comment. Readers with samples of Chuckie's e-mail output are invited to shower The Insider with samples.