Oct. 24, 2014 - Houston Mayor Annise Parker told University of Houston Law Center students Oct. 23 that being a strong mayor of the nation’s fourth largest city comes with a host of challenges, but also unique opportunities.
"In Houston, who is in the mayor's office matters more than any other city," Parker told students in a packed classroom during a lunchtime presentation hosted by the UHLC's American Constitution Society chapter.
"As mayor of Houston, I'm the CEO of a $5 billion corporation with 22,000 employees that affects the lives of 2.1 million direct constituents and about 6.2 million constituents in the broader community," said Parker.
Parker, who is only the second woman (after Kathryn Whitmire) to hold the office, said women remain underrepresented in public office. She noted that in U.S. history only ten women have served as mayors of cities with populations of more than one million. The only other female mayor of a top-50 U.S. city today is Baltimore's Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
"As mayor of Houston, I have more constituents than the governors of 15 states," she said, hastening to add that is because of "the scale of the city," the fourth-largest in the country and one of the most far-flung.
Parker explained that Houston, which historically had a council-city manager form of government, changed its governing charter in the 1950s, essentially incorporating all of the powers of the former city manager position within the office of the mayor.
"The theory is that if you have that strong mayor, you have one throat to choke," she joked.
As mayor, she holds a vote on City Council (and votes first) and controls its agenda. There are 11 single-district council members and five at-large members, who she said serve a similar role as the U.S. Senate in representing the entire community.
"I happen to think that municipal government is the highest level of government because it is closest to people, and has more direct impact on individual lives," said Parker, who is serving in her third and final term as mayor since first being elected in 2009 (after previously having served as an at-large council member and city comptroller).
While many constituents may not know who their Congressional representative is or what they've done in office, Parker said, "if the trash is not picked up at your house, I get phone calls."
Parker said cities all have to perform the same basic functions, starting with providing water and sewer services and garbage pickup.
"But the bigger the city, the more complicated those services are. Cities are 24/7 operations. They are service organizations. And because they deal with people's lives on a daily basis in a way that no other level of government does, they have to function at a very high level," she said.
"If you have a poor administrator in the mayor's office, the wheels come off very, very quickly," said Parker, adding that in her time in elective office she worked closely with her two immediate predecessors and previously worked with two others as a community activist.
However, "the beauty of a strong-mayor system is that if a mayor comes in with an agenda, that can be put in place pretty rapidly," she said. "If you are focused, you can get things done in a hurry."
She said former Mayor Lee P. Brown, whom she described as "a fine, decent, honest man," was elected on a platform of bringing light rail (which had been opposed by his predecessor, Bob Lanier) to Houston. While he focused on accomplishing "big projects" like rail and the downtown baseball and basketball stadiums, Parker said, he was less involved in the day-to-day workings of the city.
"He struggled because he was not an engaged administrator, and he never put anybody in place to fill that void. And the city experienced some really miserable times," she said.
By contrast, Parker said, Bill White (Brown's successor and her immediate predecessor),"came in really on a pledge to tighten up the controls, make the city function a little more efficiently. He was a very strong administrator, but in my view, he went a little too much in the other direction. The city ran without any scandals, we got a lot of things done. But there was not a lot of innovation, not a lot of new initiatives."
"I'm somewhere in the middle. I'm a big believer in hiring good people, telling them the direction I want to go and then turning them loose. I think the results have been great for Houston."
During a question-and-answer session, a student asked how people in the greater Houston area can be made aware of which services are the responsibility of the city government and which to other governmental entities.
Parker noted that the population of unincorporated Harris County is almost as large as that of Houston.
"We are rapidly becoming a completely urbanized county," she said. However, the county is represented by only four commissioners and the county judge, and they are not able to enact laws themselves, but instead execute state laws.
When a constituent calls her office to complain about something that isn't within the city's purview, she said, her response can vary.
"It depends on what kind of mood I'm in," she joked. More seriously, she said, "My message to all of my people is we try to solve it" by helping find the office the person calling should contact, often through social media.
Parker said that in a time of crisis, the mayor acts as "the face and voice of the city." She noted that since she took the reins, there has not been a hurricane. But if there were, she would work closely with Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.
"After (Hurricane) Ike (in 2008), there was so much confusion as to who did what where, the state of Texas had to intervene and the governor specified that the ultimate emergency manager for every county in Texas was the country judge. As a home rule city, I am in charge of the Police Department and the Fire Department, but I coordinate through the county judge," she said.
Asked by another student what were the "checks against your office," Parker noted that the city also has an elected city comptroller, who monitors the city's financials and "co-signs all the checks," acting as a balance to the strong mayor. That prevents any Houston mayor from using the office to enrich himself or others, she said.
Parker told another student that she has no "sway" or "influence" over Texas state government. The flip side of that is that the city receives no funding from the state.
But Parker lamented that the larger partisan rancor in the national political arena has affected local governmental relations.
"It is less apparent now than it in previous years, but whether you were Republican or Democrat, if you were in Washington, it was a united front for Texas," she said.
Parker, a Democrat, said she had a very good working relationship with former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican "who was absolutely Texas first." While she said she works well with current senior Sen. John Cornyn, he is more interested in leading the Republican Party on the national level. It's even more difficult to work with junior Sen. Ted Cruz, also a Republican and a favorite of the Tea Party constituency.
"It's changed our effectiveness as a city and a state in terms of bringing home the bacon," she said.
Parker said too many people "have an idea that government is 'out there,' not here."
"All government is a mechanism of decision-making. Politics is how we choose representatives to make those decisions for us, but government is about decision-making. It is about balancing competing needs in order to do things to live in concert with each other," she said.
A student asked Parker how the city manages to keep up with providing services during a time when the local economy is booming, largely because of the oil and gas sector, and the city is once again one of the fastest-growing the in the nation.
"It is a blessing to be a mayor of a city with a hot economy," Parker said, "but it pushes stresses and strains on all of those functions."
An example of that, she said, is that the city of Houston is the largest supplier of water in the region with its Lake Houston and Lake Conroe reservoirs, built decades ago. But now, she noted, one of the "critical debates" in Texas is where water will come from, and who will provide it, to a growing population in a time of drought and the effects of climate change.
"We're sitting on lot of water resources," she said, and a lot of people outside the city want access to those resources.
Likewise, she said, the growing city has to find places to put its trash. But that often raises a host of issues, such as environmental impacts and "environmental racism."
"We are doing our best to keep with (the growth)," she said. While Houston is the only major U.S. city without zoning, Parker said it is moving forward with a Comprehensive Plan.
"We have a parks and recreation master plan, a libraries plan, a bike plan, but we didn't have anything that integrates those," she said. A particular challenge, she said, is following development in far-flung areas of the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction.
"What we're trying to do with the Comprehensive Plan is to track where development is going so we can, not lead the market, but keep our infrastructure moving where it needs to go," she said.
Parker, who before her tenure in public service worked for two decades in the oil and gas industry, said she's a firm believer in the use of technology and "Big Data."
"I really believe that if you have good information, you can make better decisions," she said.
Agreeing that Houston's streets are often in bad shape, Parker touted the "Rebuild Houston" drainage fee initiative the Council enacted a few years ago, which pays for street and drainage projects without new debt financing. While the city has been essentially "paying cash for the house" over the past couple of years, she said, "the next mayor is going to look like a genius, because we'll be ramping up street projects."
Unless, she joked, the next mayor starts getting complaints from people who can't drive to across town because of all of the street repairs.