The new mayor, controller, and council get started
by Annise D. Parker
From a City Council member’s perspective, the tone of the 2004 inaugural celebration differed in one important respect from my first inauguration as an at-large member in 1998. When council members walked out on the stage with their spouses—in my case, life partner—we were introduced as “council members” without being named individually. All the focus was on the mayor.
When Mayor Bill White praised new council member Pam Holm in his inaugural speech for taking on the billboard industry, his inclusiveness signaled his administration’s new direction.
White was no less generous in his remarks about other new council members Adrian Garcia, Ronald Green, M.J. Kahn, and Toni Lawrence. Inclusion has not always been the theme of new administrations, and time will tell if this grand honeymoon gesture will develop into a healthy marriage.
An appreciation for diversity will be helpful. The new council includes seven women (the most ever); the city’s first Muslim and South Asian-American elected official; three African Americans; two Hispanics; and one Asian American. Not to mention an openly lesbian city controller.
Viewpoints will be diverse: small-business owners, a police officer, attorneys, a community activist and radio show host, nonprofit director, standup comic, physician, realtor, financial planner.
The day after the inaugural, the New York Times featured an unusually positive story about the new era in Houston. What better photo to run than one of the country’s most modern light rail cars? The article also mentioned that I had walked across the stage with my life partner, Kathy Hubbard. Only some of the Miller Outdoor Theatre audience, however, realized that the pianist-composer playing the national anthem was not just the mayor’s brother, but the mayor’s openly gay brother, Robert Avalon.
The mayor’s new staff is scurrying around City Hall trying to get settled in with one hand and working frantically with the other hand to find Budget Efficiencies—the new buzzwords.
I was waiting to get a new ID badge, and one of the bright young stars of the White team wanted to talk about how to reduce maintenance and security costs in a particular department. Perhaps his frenetic pace is synchronized with the budget clock ticking in his ears. Houston may have a new mayor and unseasonable weather, but budget season begins each January.
The mayor’s staff works closely with department heads and the financial staff to piece together a balanced budget that will be presented to council in May. On a parallel track, the public gets its turn in late January and February at annual budget/CIP (Capital Improvement Program) hearings. Council members also have some input in the early stages through their budget priorities submitted in March or April. By July 1, Council must pass an FY05 budget as the new fiscal year begins.
The search for efficiencies is already intense as a huge budget crisis looms for FY05. We hope the recent minor upturn in the economy continues, because the city faces dramatic increases in the expense column, notably a $50 million contractual raise for police and a $20–$30 million jump in health insurance costs (the city is still negotiating), as well as pension fund underfunding.
New Perspective at the Council Table
The mood was extremely cordial during the first full-length council meeting. This was also my first meeting as controller, who is invited to attend the first council meeting of the month to present the state of the city’s finances. The current budget gap is down to about $8 million because of spending cuts by the Brown administration. If sales taxes continue to inch up, this shortfall is easily manageable.
Mayor White’s calm, thoughtful style set the tone for the meeting. He talked softly and offered to share the big stick with council, often going out of his way to acknowledge the important role of council and ask for input.
When he spoke, he made it count. At one point, the mayor was asked a logistical question for which he didn’t immediately know the answer. He just paused for 20–30 seconds, without embarrassment, to think.
Important initiatives were announced:
• Contractor scorecard. Mayor White wants to make sure city contractors don’t just perform work for the best price. He wants them rated on four criteria: bang for the buck, community involvement, commitment to diversity, and local employees.
• Cost effectiveness. The mayor also would like to formalize criteria for cost effectiveness, an idea that has been discussed by several council members. Presumably, these criteria would be applied to current and proposed programs.
• Interdepartmental task force on LARA (Land Assemblage Redevelopment Authority) and related public nuisance issues. LARA will sell abandoned property to CDCs (community development corporations) and developers at below-market prices to promote construction of low- and moderate-income housing.
At the end of the meeting, agenda director Marty Stein, who sits next to the mayor, summed up my feelings when she told the mayor, “Excellent job.”
2004 is off to a great start.
Annise Parker is city controller. To receive her newsletter, send an email to [email protected]