Local Politics

Grading Mayor Turner’s First Year

 

Yes, upon closer inspection, it appears the suit is empty.

Photo: Robert Sheie.

2016 was Mayor Sylvester Turner’s first year as captain of the ship that is the City of Houston.

His administration began with the same hope that follows the inauguration of any brand new executive official, from presidents to governors, to mayors.

2016 began with a grand inaugural party…

…And it ended with a whimper.

Business as usual.

Problems get worse, not solved.

No vision.

No leadership.

Just photo-ops and passing the buck.

It’s unfortunate, but Microscope Houston must report it honestly.

It’s not a partisan issue, either.

We didn’t hold back the criticism of the R’s in our report titled “How Blue is HOU?”

Now, it’s the D’s turn to take the heat for failed leadership.

And, it didn’t have to be, because there were great candidates for mayor running on the D side.

Adrian Garcia and Chris Bell both had serious agendas and serious promise for a successful first year, had they won.

2016 has certainly been bittersweet for R candidate Bill King who lost by a narrow margin due to the liberal-enough inner loop, combined with insane, eye-popping 9 to 1+ margins for Turner in Fort Bend county.

The Fort Benders still haven’t received any serious attention from the mayor’s office, but yet they were the ones who powered him to victory.

In a nutshell, it doesn’t appear that anyone is at the helm, manning the wheel.

The city has had very difficult storms that began in prior years and continued into 2016… and now into 2017.

It doesn’t appear that the mayor has a chart, a course, or a plan.

Who he is.

Turner, as many readers of this report will already know, was a long-time member of the state legislature where he served in the House, never advancing to state senate leadership which is often the next step for an ambitious house member.

Turner was well known for being a Democrat in Austin who supported the leadership of former speaker of the house Tom Craddick.  In the 2007 Legislative Session, Turner pounded the gavel for Craddick while his fellow D’s called for Republican Craddick’s removal, called him a tyrant, and cried for new elections.

In the mayoral race, Turner touted his legislative experience as proof of his be-partisan ability to forge coalitions and get things done.

His critics, however, cried foul and claimed ethics violations for a past that included generating more than $3M in contracts with government departments.

Turner defended his payments from government departments saying “What’s wrong with me … operating businesses that do not interfere at all with my legislative duties?”

Yet, he didn’t address his critics’ charges that a politician in government shouldn’t be getting lucrative fees from government.  Because those fees might affect his judgement on how government spends tax payer money.

What he promised.  

On the campaign trail, Turner didn’t promise much but did rack up the endorsements of public unions whose pension plans were in major jeopardy of going insolvent or being reformed by his eventual opponent in the run-off, Republican Bill King.

King advocated moving away from blank check “defined benefits” to defined contributions.

The overwhelming majority of the public working in private sector employment must save their money with defined amounts being contributed, not given a guaranteed return at the start of retirement.

By seeking to install defined pension plans for new employees, King would have created parity between public and private sector workers on a going forward basis.  Turner’s endorsements from the unions seemed to promise a continuation of the status quo and higher taxes for private sector employees who generally don’t receive guaranteed benefits at retirement.

Otherwise, Turner promised very little.

He promised to talk to stakeholder groups and solve problems.

He was (intentionally?) very vague and appealed to voters on a platform of working with everyone to get things done, while also correctly opposing discrimination against LGBTQ people.  That was the one bright spot on Turner’s agenda – and he has kept that promise but without actually doing anything of substance for LGBTQ people.

He also was endorsed by the extremely wealthy west side real estate development company called MetroNational which owns Memorial City Mall.

When the run-off with King was announced, the president of MetroNational called for employees in a company-wide email to give to the Turner campaign up to $5,000 or $10,000, the contribution maximum depending on marital status.

What, if anything, was Turner promising behind closed doors?

No one knows.

But, it would do well to remember his past accumulation of government contracts that his critics chastised him for.

Pensions.

Once in office, Turner declined to solve the pension crisis.

Instead, he supported the public sector unions and declared it off limits to go to a defined pension plan.

If he fails to solve the pension disaster, the state legislature will have to solve it for him.

Flooding.

After major floods devastated many neighborhoods twice in 11 months and for the third time in 7 years, flooding is arguably the single most important issue that the city of Houston faces.  It will determine whether people decide to stay in the city or vote with their feet and leave.

After the second flood in 11 months on Tax Day 2016, Mayor Turner said there’s nothing you can do when it rains really hard.

In a December article posted in our “Local News, Curated” section, the Texas Tribune blasted that argument as being full of holes.

The Tribune showed how local government policies had caused “urban flooding.”  Urban flooding is flooding that occurs outside any known flood plain and is caused by development that is permitted without requiring adequate detention of storm water run-off.

One local group has sued the city of Houston for allowing reckless growth after it was stone-walled in its attempts to work together to fix flooding, despite Turner promising in his campaign to work with stakeholders on flooding issues.  Their lawsuit was filed in May of 2016, after Turner still refuses to talk about solutions to urban flooding, even after the devastating Tax Day floods.

That group has actually shown in its lawsuit Turner’s administration giving millions of dollars of subsidies to a developer to build in a flood prone area instead of building badly needed flooding protection infrastructure which the funds could actually be used for.

The company that was on the receiving end of the lavish, twenty million dollar plus subsidies is MetroNational, the same company whose leadership directed employees to pay the legal max to Turner’s campaign fund.

Meanwhile, Turner has appointed a “flood czar,” Stephen Costello.  Mr. Costello had been a council member barred by term limits and he had fared poorly in the 2015 elections for mayor.

After failing to make the run-off, Costello endorsed Mr. Turner rather than his fell R, Bill King.

Mayor Turner won’t talk to any constituents groups representing flooded homeowners.  Instead, all requests to talk with city hall are routed through the flood czar who didn’t have any staff for most of 2016.  Costello’s office now employs a city hall politico, and no one else with subject matter expertise on urban flooding.

Mr. Costello also won’t speak out to direct funds earmarked for flooding and infrastructure to needed neighborhoods projects, as opposed to government subsidies to private developers.

Mr. Costello prefers to talk about pie-in-the-sky long term solutions like providing incentives to parking lot owners to use permeable concrete.  It’s a great idea, but it is years in the making and years from ever seeing any impact on the dire flooding problem.

Spending his time with Rice University student think tanks, and the single staff member he now employs is how he spends his time when not touring the city doing damage control for Turner.  Naming a flood czar and then ignoring the problem himself is not a serious way to address the problem of flooding.

TIRZ’s and Management Districts

Mr. Turner continues to allow for private boards utilizing public money to divvy up a lion’s share of public revenue to ethically suspect projects.

In Uptown, millions upon millions of dollars go to developing bus lanes and buying up right-of-way owned by board members of that Tax Increment Re-Investment Zone.

That money should be spent on fixing infrastructure around the Galleria that caused massive flooding of homes and apartments, including flooding of the Galleria parking garage itself, a complete embarrassment to the city.

Mayor Turner continues to operate under the pipe dream that voters will remove the revenue cap and then he can direct all the funds of the TIRZ’s and management districts to the general revenue fund.

A Tax Increment Re-Investment zone provides an exception to the revenue cap.  If voters remove the cap, Turner can shut down the TIRZ’s and the money will go into a general revenue account for the city.

With the revenue cap in place, TIRZ and management district funds are spent locally where raised – albeit with no public accountability, and being raided for corporate subsidies by hyper-local powerful business leaders who contribute to campaigns.

Turner has not spoken out about this problem, continuing to allow the public coffers to get robbed of millions of dollars.

Instead, he says he will try to remove the revenue cap at a future time.

But, voters see the mismanagement and waste of funds at 901 Bagby Street and become more and more less likely to vote to give the city more funds to mismanage.  This mismanagement included a quarter of a million dollars being allocated for a shower at city hall for cyclists to shower up before going to their city hall jobs, an expenditure of funds that only helps very young city employees or wealthy city employees who live in cycling distance of the city.

Things got so bad in the Montrose Management District that a state judge finally ordered the district shut down after it was sued by business for being illegally formed.  Granted, that lawsuit emerged before Turner’s time in office, but why was Turner so silent on these abuses?  Why is Turner still silent when the district refuses to obey the lawsuit and maintains in operation pending appeal, refusing to refund the tax dollars illegally obtained?

One lawyer being taxed by the Montrose TIRZ was outraged when he saw trees outside his office being torn down and – for half a million dollars of public money – being replaced with “native” trees, likely grown on a tree farm outside of town.

Potholes.  E-complaints.

The “See. Click. Fix.” smartphone application is definitely neat.

It allows users to report problems like potholes on their phone and monitor Public Works’ response in fixing.

Major Turner’s first major initiative as mayor was to get this app up and running and promise unprecedented (but imminently doable) response times from Public Works in getting the potholes fixed.

That was neat.

It was fun to see potholes get fixed.

It was amazing to see Public Works actually working.

But, the app was clearly in the works prior to Turner becoming mayor.   Many cities across the country have implemented a popular program to jump-start fixing potholes.  Turner’s signature move at the beginning of 2016 was hardly original or novel – just a basic government function made novel by information age technology.

The pothole fixes are also just temporary fixes.

So, the pothole initiative – while fun, was hardly a game changer.

Twitter Photo-Ops

For a man who hasn’t made his mark fixing problems, he spends lots of time getting photo-ops with anyone and everyone and posting them on Twitter.

See @SylvesterTurner on Twitter.  Click on “Media” and scroll down, and you’ll see how much time our mayor has for getting in front of the camera.

He needs to use that time to get serious about solving problems, not attending every party and event in the city.

He should pop some Ritalin if needed, and get into the conference room and start working with all those stakeholders he promised to work with.

Less Twitter photo ops would be a welcome relief to taxpayers frustrated by all the problems not getting solved.

You’re on your own mentality.

For the home owners near the White Oak Music Hall, who complain of sound volumes that vibrate their homes for hours on end, the mayor refuses to deny permits for a temporary stage.  He doesn’t get involved in litigation, which the home owners were forced to initiate after repeated failures by the city to protect them from extremely high decibel music in the evenings.

The White Oak Music Hall folks basically put Woodstock-every-weekend in someone’s neighborhood, and Turner refuses to get involved to make the situation right.  This simply goes beyond benign neglect, and reflects the free for all that city development policies have become.  Developers can flood out homeowners with water or sound, pillage the public coffers for subsidies and pay-outs, and Turner won’t reign in the problem or curb even the worst excesses.

Assigning a Final Grade for 2016.

In the end, it seems Sylvester Turner does what he needs to do to keep Sylvester Turner’s core voters and donors happy.  He simply hasn’t been active in addressing the major structural and quality of life issues facing Houstonians.  A mayor of the fourth largest city in the country simply has to do better.

Photo ops and self-congratulatory press conferences simply are not going to cut it.

That’s our definition of an empty suit.

Microscope Houston awards Mayor Turner an “F” in his first year as mayor.

But, he still has the opportunity to be so much more.  This is more of a progress report than a final grade.

We hope that Turner will reverse course and start getting serious about creating a sustainable future for Houstonians on fiscal and flooding issues, and creating real opportunity – not just photo ops – for folks who have trouble getting ahead.

We are hoping he will rise above and serve the city well in 2017.

To succeed in 2017, Turner must start calling those stakeholder meetings he promised, rolling up his sleeves, and truly begin anew the hard work of running the fourth largest city in the nation.

We wish him the best should he choose to do so.

This has been a Microscope Houston report.  

Don’t forget The Local News, Curated.

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