InsideOut At City Hall: New Beginnings
What will a more progressive city council mean for our city?
My third and final term as city controller got off to a shivering start in January as I sat with the mayor and City Council at inauguration.
The cold air bristled with politics. Speaking about “Change” has become clichéd, but we get a healthy dose of it every two years in Houston with a third of council turning over and, of course, every four years with presidential elections. This year has already roared off to a roller-coaster start and promises to be full of surprising political twists and turns.
Mayor Bill White delivered his best inaugural speech—impassioned, personal, upbeat, challenging, and reasonably brief. As he highlighted Houston’s progress during his four years in office (including 250,000 new jobs), he set the tone for his last term in office, his legacy as a mayor. I imagine he keeps a must-do list in his head and has a strategy and timeline for accomplishing everything. It’s no accident he addressed the chilly crowd at Discovery Green, the city’s newest (and not quite finished) park located near the convention center. This is precisely the kind of public-private partnership for which the mayor will be remembered.
Unlike the more conservative City Council on which I served for six years, the new council is far more progressive. Phrases like “quality of life” and “neighborhood-friendly development” roll off their lips. Houston is entering a new era, and I am extremely excited to play a role in it.
City Council faces a challenging year. Held over from 2007 are two thorny issues: the postponed billboard agreement and an ordinance restricting high-rise developments to major thoroughfares to better protect neighborhoods.
As you may have read, I oppose allowing outdoor advertising companies to relocate and extend the lifespan of billboards scheduled to come down by 2013, the deadline set in Eleanor Tinsley’s historic 1980 ordinance. That’s when all billboards except those on federal highways and roadways are scheduled to be removed. I also oppose the controversial 23-story high-rise planned at Bissonnet and Ashby and urge council to pass form-based ordinances limiting the size and mass of such buildings in relation to surrounding neighborhoods or a traffic impact ordinance that would allow us to regulate density when it would cause serious deterioration of traffic flow.
Although as city controller and the city’s chief financial officer I do not vote on City Council, I will continue to speak out on issues important to me. That said, I try to pick my battles. Unlike some of our predecessors, the mayor and I work well together and don’t waste time fighting one another in the press. That’s a tradition I hope to continue.
And although this is my sixth inauguration, I never tire of another new Houston tradition: being introduced as an elected official with life partner, Kathy Hubbard.
While trying to keep warm, council members also whispered about who would be the new mayor pro-tem, the council member who presides over meetings when the mayor can’t be there. Later that morning, after much backroom politicking, council confirmed Adrian Garcia of District H as mayor pro-tem after M.J. Khan, the mayor’s first choice, declined. Council members then elected at-large Council member Sue Lovell as vice mayor pro-tem. This is a compliment to Sue, and a wonderful first for the GLBT community.
New at-large Council member Jolanda Jones turned heads at the inauguration with her bright pink coat and white hat. As you may recall, Jolanda once competed on Survivor . She was also a former UH track star. Council also welcomed three more new members, each distinguished in their own ways: Wanda Adams of District D, which includes Montrose; Mike Sullivan of Kingwood (District E); and James Rodriguez, District I.
Jones, Adams, and Rodriguez all enjoyed strong GLBT support. They bring a diversity of experience to council, but all are proving to be bright, dedicated, and apparently willing to be team players for the good of the city as well as independent voices when necessary.
Goals for my final term as city controller include items only an accountant could really love. We will finish the internal software upgrades and process restructuring that have consumed much of my time to date. Weaning the city off some of its passion for paper has been slow, but we moved all employees to direct deposit of payroll checks and initiated a paperless payroll system. As we work the last bugs out of our new citywide financial software (two years and counting!), the city will be well launched into 21st-century technology. Finally, I have budgeted for significant expansion of our internal audit staff. This will allow us to get closer to optimum staffing for an organization of this size.
Annise Parker is the second-term city controller and the highest-ranking openly GLBT-elected municipal official in any of the 10 largest U.S. cities. Her website is www.houstoncontroller.org. Parker’s television program, Money Matters, airs Monday on the Municipal Channel (Comcast) at 2 and 8 a.m. and 2 and 8 p.m. The City Controller’s webpage is www.houstontx.gov/controller/index.html. To receive the controller’s newsletter, send an email to [email protected]