Texans stew in town where impeachment trials are the rule; S. Houston has removed two mayors in five years


Down in South Houston, Texas, there are some indelible truths: Chicken fried steak is best cooked well-done, seafood better be fresh from the Gulf of Mexico and whoever is elected mayor will probably be impeached.

This town scoffs at Congress' meager record of two impeached presidents in 131 years. South Houston's City Council has impeached and removed two mayors in the past five, the most recent in November. One of the mayors who served between those beleaguered administrations survived an impeachment attempt, and the other, battle-fatigued, quit.

Starr as Snow White

This blue-collar suburb of Houston is a rarity, one of the relatively few American towns that has impeachment power and isn't shy about using it.

And it's pretty clear that South Houston's citizens have had a bellyful. In fact, the joke around town is that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr and his coterie seem as docile as Snow White and her dwarfs in comparison.

"Right now, the people want it to stop. They are sick and tired of it," said John Phillipos, owner of the City Cafe, a buffet-style restaurant that, by all accounts, is a hub of political gossip. Phillipos noted how a new mayor appointed to replace the latest impeachment casualty has served for two months now with, surprisingly, no talk of impeachment.

"But I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow," he said.

If there is some lesson in South Houston's troubles, perhaps it is one Democrats in Washington have been preaching for months -- that impeachment, when used too liberally, can dangerously alter the balance of power, giving one branch of government inordinate leverage over another.

Indeed, in this community of 15,000 -- known for cramming more used-car lots and bars into a 2 1/2-mile strip than imagined possible -- the scramble for power seems unlikely to end.

Solita Walker, a 60-year-old resident, even fears that as the town's pols have spent their time bickering, some city services have been neglected.

"Our streets are deplorable, and we've got problems with the sewer lines. I mean, they're 40 years old, and they're cratering," she said. "I hope we'll have some better times. But we're getting another election coming in May, and it's going to be hell. It's crazy."

The impeachment caldron boiled most recently Nov. 13, when Mayor Cipriano Romero, 28, a soft-spoken law school graduate and former Capitol Hill intern, was deposed by the City Council after an eight-hour trial.

Lost 'trust and confidence'

"He lost all the trust and confidence of the city government," said Johnny Tamayo, the council member who chaired Romero's impeachment trial. "You pass a budget, you pass ordinances. This is the way the council can convey what it is ordering done. And it is his responsibility as chief executive officer to carry it out.

"If he's not going to do it, then we need to rely on the council itself."

Romero was convicted of not signing some checks the council wanted him to sign, once misrepresenting the views of the council to a county agency, and failing to keep the audience from disrupting council meetings. Other resolutions drafted during the trial, but not included in the conviction, alleged that he "deliberately converted" to his personal use sweets meant for town children and referred to a former city secretary as the "wicked witch of the west."

The mayor's supporters say he was railroaded, the victim of a conspiracy of political enemies.

"You might call it a kangaroo court," said longtime resident Lynn Brasher.

Brasher, 68, was South Houston's mayor from 1983 to 1985. He said the council backed away from a threat to impeach him. Twice.

"It was a foregone conclusion," Brasher said of the Romero trial. "This fellow had more brains than anyone on that council. To save their own butts, they had to impeach him, to let them keep spending."

Romero's immersion in politics began with a successful campaign to save the city's cottonwood trees. Residents had complained that the cottony hairs shed by the trees aggravated their allergies and littered their cars, so the council declared the tree a public nuisance and ordered out the chain saws. Eventually, Romero's campaign persuaded the council to reverse itself, but only after more than three dozen of the 60-foot trees had been felled.

Romero first won a council seat in 1995 while still in law school. He was appointed mayor by fellow council members in 1996 to replace a mayor who resigned during a bitter dispute with the council.

Romero's relationship with the council soured quickly after he began questioning its award of lucrative contracts to a well-liked city engineer and alleging that it was overpaying him for projects that should have been put out to bid. Council members say they are investigating the allegations but that there was no cause for the uproar Romero created.

Judging by council members' arguments, the mayor's personality was as much a factor as his actions.

"It was his arrogance," Tamayo said. "He wanted to play a public relations game and not do the basic job of mayor."

In South Houston, impeachment differs from the method prescribed by the Constitution for the president. When a resident files a complaint about the mayor, the council holds a hearing that can result in dismissal of the complaint or in an investigation and trial.

If a trial is held, the council sits as a jury. It takes separate votes, by a two-thirds majority, to convict and remove. Romero was convicted 5-0 and removed 4-1.

Impeachment is an option in fewer than 15 percent of the nation's municipalities, according to Roger Merriam, a lawyer for Municipal Code Corp. who helps write codes for towns nationwide. In many others, a recall election, triggered by a petition drive, is required.

"If I were drafting the model charter, I'd say why not have recall instead of impeachment," he said. "Let the people do it."

In Maryland, only a handful of the 157 municipalities allow the council to sack the mayor -- something that hasn't happened in decades, if at all, says the Maryland Municipal League -- and 21 have recall elections. In the remaining municipalities, including Baltimore, the council has no power to remove the mayor.

Texas is unusual. About 800 small towns without charters are governed by a state statute that allows removal by the council. Yet impeachment is rare -- except in South Houston, where some new effort to boot the chief rattles the town like holiday fireworks nearly every year.

In 1994, the City Council ousted Mayor Dennis Cordray after convicting him of conducting meetings improperly. In 1995, Mayor Ralph Clark was threatened with impeachment for refusing to let voters have a say in sewage improvements. He survived, but his successor, Don Gaylor, resigned in 1996 after council members, including Romero, won a court fight over Gaylor's refusal to put items on the agenda that the council wanted there.

"We don't have a third branch of government anymore," said Brasher, the former mayor and Romero ally. "This is the invasion of a legislative body taking over all the power the executive has."

Of course, Brasher neglected to add that it was he who launched the failed impeachment inquiry into Clark.

Pub Date: 2/05/99

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