Back in June, this board came out with a list of the Best and Worst Legislators of the 83rd State Legislature. The list was largely modeled after what Texas Monthly has been doing after sine die for now 40 years. But nobody –at least nowadays– does lists of best and worst members of the City Council; we felt it was time to change all of that.
Theoretically, this list should cover the entire term from the beginning of 2012 to the present, but it is admittedly heavily biased in favor of the actions taken by Councilmembers this year alone, given the recent inception of this board as an institution. That being said, we attempted to use a rather well-rounded method to distinguish the good from the bad. Additionally, given the unmatched power that the Mayor holds at City Hall in unilaterally setting the agenda, dissent is sometimes conflated with obstinate obstructionism. Again, this board has tried its best to separate the emotions and intentions of a Councilmember’s act of disobedience from the breakaway itself.
Much like our June list of Legislators, we have included (ranked) the three best City Councilmembers and the three worst City Councilmembers. Additionally, like Texas Monthly, we have included a further category for the quintessential bellwether. In Monthly, it is referred to as the “Bull of the Brazos,” a politician whom “the line between a scoundrel and a statesman can be hammered too thin to recognize.” We will call it the “Bull of the Bagby,” a whimsical reference to Bagby Street, the location of City Hall. Further, we will also grade the City leadership with a letter grade. Since this board includes a student of Harvard University, considering the recent attention, we have worked very hard to combat any “grade inflation” that Texpatriate may engage in. Not everyone gets “A”s, nor should everyone, so an imperfect mark is not intended to be construed as a sign of failure within this exercise.
This board also entertained the idea of given out some sort of distinction similar to Monthly‘s “furniture” designation, which denotes the lawmakers who participated at similar levels as their desks and chairs. However, we eventually decided such a label would be too harsh for any of the Councilmembers, considering we are now without the likes of a Jolanda Jones, who was notorious for playing hookey.
We know many will disagree with our rationale, some possibly strongly. We invite those to address our hypothetically-alleged shortcomings when they publish their own list of Best and Worst City Councilmembers. This board looks forward to them with great zeal, especially the Houston Chronicle’s.
Accordingly, we present, our list:
1. Stephen Costello (Republican, At-large #1)
It is not often that a politician causes us to admit we have a renewed hope in the future of this country, but that is exactly what CM Costello does. First things first, as Chairman of the Council’s Budget Committee, he has wielded considerable influence over the City’s strong fiscal situation. In many cases, possibly even picking up the slack from the City Controller’s office. This board strongly believes that CM Costello’s technocratic style has allowed him to transcend the typical limitations that often constrain ultra-political officeholders on the horseshoe.
However, it is the zeal and alacrity with which CM Costello dedicates himself to the social & community issues of the City that convinces us he, more than any other, has been the best member of the City Council this term. He has fought tirelessly for much-needed infrastructure projects, such as a controversial drainage tax. This board has been especially impressed to see him work indefatigably to bring relief to food deserts, expand bike trails and make Houston an all-around better place to live. What’s more, he has cooperated with the Mayor to help implement a rather progressive agenda for Houston.
CM Costello is what the Tea Party, or more generally just the majority of the party, would call a RINO–a Republican in name only. He is gay-friendly, campaigned hard for an ordinance strongly regulating payday lending and understands the important role that the Government must serve in people’s lives. As a small business owner, however, CM Costello understands the needed role that business –even big business– must serve in the continued development of this City. He also understands the looming economic challenges that this City faces over the long term, and has been quite receptive to crafting solutions to these challenges. CM Costello has forged a pragmatic middle-ground, acknowledging the problems these unfunded liabilities pose without appearing eager to give the shaft to workers and pensioners.
Overall, this board believes that the CM Costello is an inimitable advocate of the pragmatic progressivism of Republicans like Michael Bloomberg and Democrats like Rahm Emanuel. The rumor mill has peeped that CM Costello will be at least considering a run for Mayor next cycle; this board eagerly awaits his decision with great interest.
2. Jerry Davis (Democrat, District B)
Last week, all of the new City Councilmembers-elect gathered at City Hall for the first time to hear a presentation from the Mayor and begin their orientation in becoming a major leader and decision-maker in the City. This board wishes that CM Davis had literally taught the course on district representation. In June 2012, the Houston Chronicle wrote that CM Davis had created a “do-it-yourself-approach” to public serve and representing his constituency. After a long era of representation by less-than-stellar, detached representatives, this board believes that CM Davis has finally ushered in a new day for District B.
However, a Councilmember’s job is more than just going out into the field and helping neighbors with landscaping and trash-pickup, which CM Davis has done extensively. He has also done a fantastic job of polling constituents in order to gauge public opinion on hot-button issues. We look at the recent Payday Lending reform ordinance as a classic example of this phenomenon. While CM Davis was originally tepid towards the prospect of the regulations, after polling his constituents, he had a noticeable about-face and vehemently supported the measure. Following the cues of the voters, rather than the special interests, is a noble course that more public officials should strive towards.
This board has also been pleased to see CM Davis continue a tradition of holding a plethora of town hall meetings to meet with his constituents throughout the district. Another quintessential responsibility of a public servant, receptiveness to the community is paramount for those aspiring to represent it.
3. Melissa Noriega (Democrat, At-large #3)
Typically in the era of term limits, Councilmembers are unable to serve more than six years in office. CM Noriega, elected in an early-year special election, will have served nearly seven years in office when she leaves the horseshoe early next year. Over the course of her last term in office, serving as the Dean of the Council, this board has been largely impressed by both the breadth of her knowledge and the depth of her leadership on the Council.
Throughout this year in particular, CM Noriega has served as one of Mayor Parker’s closest allies and confidants, and has worked tirelessly to implement her –their– agenda. The Houston Chronicle recently bemoaned the loss of her strong consensus-building abilities as perhaps the best-known At-large Councilmember, an attestation we strongly agree with. This board is immediately reminded of a recent pilot program by CM Noriega, advocating an ambitious plan to deal with sidewalk repairs and maintenance. The idea was later picked up by multiple contenders for her Council seat.
This board was also happy to see CM Noriega be such a leader in extending equal rights to the LGBT community. Whether this has been a steadfast support for a non-discrimination ordinance or being hand-in-hand with the Mayor when she announced her new policy extending spousal benefits to same-sex couples, CM Noriega has always exemplified this generation’s Civil Rights movement. A newly declared candidate for the Harris County Board of Education, we cannot wait to see what she does next.
1. Helena Brown (Republican, District A)
Among the many hallowed words in the antiquated, art-deco rotunda of City Hall is the phrase “Government Protects the People.” The phrase had some added relevance when City Hall was first built, in the midst of the Great Depression, but still continues in relevance to this day. As this board has understood it from day one, in CM Brown’s world, the government serves no function except to advance her own small-minded ideological agenda.
As the self-proclaimed Tea Party patriot on the council and as the easily most conservative, CM Brown has become a bull in a china shop, injecting an unhealthy amount of truculence into the normally docile and cooperative body. She regularly abused dilatory measures, unilaterally tagging ordinances even when broad, bipartisan consensus has been reached in support thereof. In nearly every major ordinance put before the Council, she voted against (often times, the only one). For CM Brown, the ideological interest trumps all others, including that of her constituents. In addition to being a rather poor judge of realistic political positions, this board believes that CM Brown has the added distinction of being a poor liaison to her district. By focusing all of her attention on (mostly quixotic) political points, she has achieved remarkably little for the people she ostensibly represents.
While even a broken clock is correct twice a day (the Homeless Feeding ordinance comes to mind), this board believes that the people of District A made a positive correction in choosing not to send CM Brown back to the horseshoe for another term. Small minded ideological obsessions, especially ones prescribing the demise of a functional government structure, should not be welcomed at Council chambers. A local government has very specific responsibilities, namely to “protect the people.” During CM Brown’s long tenure, this board believes the people were unfortunately too often left to protect themselves.
2. James Rodriguez (Democrat, District I)
As he ends his third and final term on the City Council, this board has historically been largely impressed and satisfied with the actions that CM Rodriguez has taken in office. For the longest time, he has been a deal maker and a pragmatic voice of reason on the Council. Accordingly, it makes it all the more tragic that he finds himself high upon this undesirable list here and now. Like the moderately popular kid in High School who just loses all of his marbles two days before graduation, CM Rodriguez took advantage of his last City Council meeting and the resulting aftermath to damage his integrity and ultimately sully his reputation in irreconcilable ways.
As the discussion of the aforementioned Payday Lending reform ordinance moved forward, it became apparently obvious, not only to this board but to the entire City, that CM Rodriguez remained placid and obstinate on the legislation as a result of hefty financial contributions from the lenders themselves. Rather than simply acknowledging his position may have been unpopular and then moving on, CM Rodriguez dug his heels in, remained recalcitrant in his opposition and resorted a steadily escalation stream of ad hominem attacks against those who disagreed with him.
Whether that has been Mustafa Tameez, Annise Parker, Lisa Falkenberg, Jose Ortiz or Noah M. Horwitz, this board has been shocked and appalled by CM Rodriguez’s childish and rude behavior both in person and on the public forum online. Public servants are expected to maintain themselves responsibly in public. Needless to say, CM Rodriguez has not done this.
Additionally, this board was troubled to see how meddlesome CM Rodriguez was in supporting a candidate in the race to succeed him on the City Council. While this may certainly be his prerogative, it gives off a bad impression of impropriety that should be avoided, especially when the Councilmember often times promulgated defamatory and downright untrue lores and rumors about other candidates.
3. Andrew Burks (Democrat, At-large #2)
While this board has often been critical of Councilmembers for their political positions above all else, we simply cannot help but to find personal issues with CM Burks that may not be reconciled. Whether this has been unnecessarily cumbersome finance reports, poor campaign communications, tax troubles or an improper style of confrontation with constituents at City Hall, CM Burks introduces a personality to local government that simply should not be welcomed.
There are many who have made rather low insults or attacks towards CM Burks’ character based on unsubstantiated rumors. This board has pointedly declined to explicitly legitimatize these attacks by printing them, but we acknowledge that other very serious issues still persist. Simply put, CM Burks was not ready to hold public office when he was first elected and he still is not today. Problems remain as well with his often nonsensical positions on pertinent issues. On the issue of food trucks, CM Burks opposed the loosening of restrictions because of ridiculous rationale over terrorism. On the homeless feeding ordinance, he remained notoriously defensive on the issue.
Much like CM Brown, this board was happy to see that CM Burks was defeated for re-election this month by the challenger David Robinson. In what appears to be a realignment back from the odder electoral results of two years ago, the people of Houston were able to make progress on the repudiation of poor leadership within the City.
BULL OF THE BAGBY
Jack Christie (Republican, At-large #5)
There are few officials in Houston as polarizing as CM Christie, someone who causes such a visceral reaction from individuals on both the left and right. By this board’s standards, the Bull of the Bagby is not simply one who is equal average or in the middle of good and bad. Rather, the Bull exemplifies the qualities of a “Best” Councilmember who also ironically committing acts that would shame a lesser politician into a spot on the “Worst” list. CM Christie fits this description frighteningly well.
Astute readers of this publication will be familiar with our strong indignation towards CM Christie for illogical and harmful positions on vaccines and harmful beliefs about the effectiveness of modern medicine. In February, he railed on against flu vaccines. In doing so, he pontificated that people do not die of the flue; something that has been proved sadly untrue over the past true after an outbreak of swine flu north of Houston. In August, he scared off an international delegation after using a meeting with the guests as a soapbox for his anti-medicinal conspiracies. All in all, the positions actively harm both the integrity of the City Council and that of the City.
However, CM Christie has also become a reliable Republican vote to support Mayor Parker’s agenda, providing needed votes to move forward rather progressive proposals. Issues such as Payday Lending reform, Wage Theft punishment and LGBT rights often rely upon at least partial conservative backing. In all of those cases, this board was heartened to see CM Christie eventually throw his full weight behind the issues. To paraphrase Texas Monthly, only the Bull of the Bagby knows if these proposals get passed because of the backing of a Republican dealmaker, or in spite of a conservative fringe politician.
Vice-Mayor Pro Tem C.O. Bradford (Democrat, At-large #4) B
City Controller Ronald Green (Democrat) C+
Mayor Annise Parker (Democrat) A-