Three years ago Lynda and I moved our home and headquarters from Galveston to Houston. Since then, I have published several commentaries on leadership in Galveston, but have waited until now to comment about Houston.
I spent 25 years in Galveston. I moved from Houston in 1984 after Hurricane Alicia and had a great vantage point to observe the island and its politics throughout many crises, including several tropical storms and hurricanes. Thus, I feel that my observations are valid.
During the time I was away from Houston I continued to follow Houston City Council and Harris County Commissioners Court.
The biggest change at Houston City Hall was term limits that caused a constant turnover. There are lots of pros and cons to the argument for this change, but one thing that it did was strike a huge blow to institutional memory.
Prior to term limits, and prior to single-member districts, which had been instituted in 1980, the city council was comprised of seven “old men” with tons of institutional memory; which often led to some very boring dialogue at the city council table. With the city council expansion, followed by term limits, there was a great deal more diversity and opportunity for change of basic policy.
The downside to such explosive change and the limit to the amount of time any one person can serve is the loss of elected officials who remember why policies were put into place. Thus, many long-time city employees had much more institutional knowledge than any of the city council members.
Mayor Annise Parker, who served six years on the city council and six years as city controller, had accumulated twelve years of experience in municipal matters before taking charge of managing the city.
Prior to Parker, the most recent mayor with city council experience was Jim McConn. Kathy Whitmire had served four years as controller before her election as mayor, but never as a member of the city council. Thus, Parker came to the position with more on-the-job experience than any of her predecessors in recent years.
Has it made a difference? I think so.
Not to disparage the accomplishments of Bob Lanier, Lee Brown or Bill White; I must say that I have been impressed with Parker and the way she has been managing the city. Although her first term had some obstacles, she easily defeated five challengers to win reelection with the endorsement of the man who was her main opponent in the previous election.
Since then she has managed to navigate issues such as red light cameras and drainage fees, including disputes with Harris County over the fees, with compromise and grace. She has maintained good relations with her fellow council members and with the media. She is working toward improved relations with the commissioners court and vows to resolve the joint city/county selection of a Port of Houston Authority Chair without public disagreement.
Whether she can maintain her position without significant opposition in the next election remains to be seen. She does have detractors who very much want her to be replaced by a new mayor. I don’t expect them to be as complacent in 2013.
Time will tell. The point of this essay is to say that Houston is a pretty well-run city and I am enjoying covering it.