Mayor Sylvester Turner announced four new department heads and one reappointment at a press conference Thursday that Turner said will come to shape the city's future in the years to come. The new positions included police chief, fire chief, municipal court presiding judges and the head of the Department of Housing and Community Development.
At the helm of the 5,300-strong Houston police force will be Art Acevedo, whom the City of Houston snatched from his post as current police chief in Austin. Acevedo began his law enforcement career 30 years ago as a field patrol officer in Los Angeles and since 2007 has been police chief in Austin, where he oversaw 2,400 officers and a $370 million annual budget. Turner said one of Acevedo's most notable accomplishments was creating a special investigative unit for officer-involved shootings amid a strained relationship with minority communities. Turner said that his commitment to community policing sealed the deal.
"He is a leader, there is no question about that. He's a cop's cop. He’s respected by police officers, and he’s respected by people in the community," Turner said. "He has had to deal with very tough, very sensitive circumstances, and he’s been able to deal with that. These are very sensitive times. When you’re trying to balance good law enforcement and the community interests, I’ve said from day one I wanted someone who placed emphasis on community policing."
For the fire department, Turner selected El Paso Fire Chief Sam Peña to come lead Houston's firefighters. Peña, who joined the El Paso squad in 1995 and became chief in 2013, has experience in a wide array of areas, including being a paramedic, a firefighter, a media spokesperson, a search and rescue team member, and a hazardous materials special force member.
"HFD is recognized around the country as one of the best fire departments in the nation," Peña said. "We intend to continue in the tradition that they’ve established, and I look forward to working with the associations, and with the rank-and-file and certainly with City Council and the mayor in moving this city forward."
While Peña said he was eager to get started, the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association offered a word of caution in a long statement, urging Peña not to get too close to those at City Hall and accusing city officials of not always supporting HFD.
“Houston firefighters wish Samuel Peña well, but we urge him to be honest about HFD’s strengths and weaknesses. Job one for Chief Peña will be to better balance his obligations at City Hall against those he will have to the 4,000 firefighters who have earned his support. Houston firefighters serve proudly, but far too few members at City Hall and at HFD Command care to truly understand the declining state of Houston’s fire service and the safety of our citizens. They stand by us at line-of-duty death memorial services, but some choose to undermine us behind the scenes.
"We urge Chief Peña to challenge City Hall to commit to the ‘shared sacrifice’ imposed upon us by sensibly addressing the declining condition of the HFD fleet and facilities, a too-often adversarial command staff, and stalled contract negotiations."
Acevedo and Peña, who both are fluent in Spanish, replace interim chiefs Martha Montalvo and Rodney West respectively, whom Turner thanked for their service.
Turner also announced that Elaine Marshall has been promoted from municipal associate judge to presiding judge; Turner reappointed Phyllis Frye to another term as a municipal judge as well. Frye was the first openly transgender judge to be appointed in Texas, having served on Houston's bench since 2010, Turner said. "She is a pioneer, she is a gladiator, and she is a very competent attorney and competent judge," he said of Frye.
Last, Turner announced that Tom McCasland would assume the role of director of the Houston Department of Housing and Community Development, after serving as its interim director since July. McCasland is the former CEO of the Harris County Housing Authority.
"Beyond being very capable," Turner said of all the appointees, "this group also reflects the diversity of this great city, and it is my answer to the current discomfort that many are feeling about inclusiveness and acceptance. Words can sometimes be deficient — but actions speak much, much louder. Houston is a diverse city, and we must have a leadership team at City Hall that must be able to understand all different populations that we serve. We have accomplished much in this first year in office, but we are far from being finished."