January 20, 2004
Early tests for White

New Mayor Bill White will get to make a very high-profile appointment shortly when he names a new police chief.

"I want a police chief who understands our diverse community," White said Monday, "and can communicate to the police force and the broader community that police will be just and that there will be no cover-ups and the organization will be accountable, from the police chief on down."

Although speculation about candidates has been a popular subject around City Hall and the Houston Police Department, the new mayor said he hasn't narrowed his choices down to a short list. He said he hopes to name a chief by April.

Among those often mentioned are acting Chief Joe Breshears, Executive Chief Tim Oettmeier, Precinct 6 Constable Victor Treviņo and retired U.S. Marshal Art Contreras. Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton's name also has come up.


The new chief will lead a department sharply criticized over problems such as the ongoing scrutiny of its crime lab. Breshears closed the toxicology lab in October after its supervisor failed a competency test, and the DNA division was shut down in late 2002 after an independent audit found widespread problems that included an undertrained staff, shoddy scientific methods and conditions ripe for evidence contamination.

Not mentioned is the K-Mart Kiddie Roundup fiasco, which may yet cost the city a boatload of money when the lawsuits get settled and/or litigated. Putting aside the PR disaster and the lowbrow entertainment value of Chief C.O. "BAMF" Bradford's potty-mouth prosecution, the case raised sticky questions about accountability and chain-of-command that the new boss will have to deal with. Good luck on that one.

Houston officers also were involved late last year in the fatal shootings of two Hispanic teenagers in circumstances that brought strong protests from the community.

Speculation over the next chief also is focusing on the chances that Houston will get its first Hispanic in that office.

"Any time you get a new administration ... it's a natural inclination for the Hispanic community to hope and lobby for a Hispanic police chief," said political consultant Marc Campos. "I don't envy the Hispanic, if one were to be named, because the expectations and scrutiny are going to be off the chart."

That's the only mention of race in this article, which is either a pleasant surprise or a gross omission given that the outgoing Mayor and Chief are black and the new mayor is white. I sure hope it's the former.

Lower profile but still important will be White's choices for the city's Metro board seats as well as the new Metro CEO.

Shirley DeLibero, the Metro president and CEO wooed from New Jersey by former Mayor Lee Brown five years ago to get the rail line built, will retire at the end of April.

White, in a recent interview, said he is working on his vision for the regional authority, which also includes 14 small enclave and suburban cities and a big chunk of unincorporated Harris County. The mayor said he expects to announce new board appointments before the Super Bowl (Feb. 1) and task them to immediately launch a search for DeLibero's replacement.

"Every day I work on this issue," White said. "I'm getting input from people who are stakeholders and understanding the future leadership we want."

Brown appointed the city's five current Metro board members. White would not say if he intends to keep any -- even for the sake of continuity.

"The people who have served on the board have worked very, very hard, and they deserve a lot of credit and appreciation for what they have been able to accomplish," White said. "I need to visit with each of those board members, and then I'll make some decisions."


The authority's farebox-recovery ratio, the percentage of operating costs paid by riders, needs to turn around from a current low, White said. Taxpayers, via a 1-cent sales tax, cover more than 80 percent of costs for most trips.

"We need to be getting the most out of our dollars," he said. "I do not want a situation where the cost per unit of bus service goes up faster. ... That is not a good trend."

Transportation and better fiscal management were the two highlights of White's campaign, so getting this right will ultimately have a bigger impact on how his tenure is judged. It'll be interesting to see the reaction to his choices.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 20, 2004 to Local politics | TrackBack