By James Pinkerton
Originally published May 31, 2016
Mayor Sylvester Turner has chosen to select Houston’s next police chief through a private executive search firm, taking the position that the applications and résumés of job candidates do not have to be made available through the Texas Public Information Act.
The process stands in stark contrast to that used by his predecessor, Annise Parker, who in 2010 released the applications of 26 candidates for police chief in response to a records request.
“I am not going to conduct this process in the media,” Turner said via email Friday. “I didn’t do that with the searches for a new city attorney, the Flood Czar, the Education Director and other positions within my administration. My goal is to find the best candidate for the job and you don’t get the best candidate when the search is conducted in the media, especially if the publicity could endanger an applicant’s current position. It will be done on my time line. In the meantime, HPD is operating quite well under the very capable leadership of Acting Police Chief Martha Montalvo.”
The mayor’s spokeswoman, Janice Evans, said the search for a new chief is being handled by a six-member transition team along with the executive search firm of Russell Reynolds Associates. She declined to provide any records on the city’s arrangements with the firm, saying its services are being provided at no cost and without a contract.
Civil rights activists and open records advocates have been sharply critical of what they see as Turner’s lack of transparency, which comes as they are demanding a new chief to reform police operations.
“This is not a transparent process they are using,” said Houston attorney Joe Larsen, who heads the review committee of the nonprofit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “Besides the mayor, the chief of police is one of the most important positions in the city, and all the stakeholders should be aware of what’s going on.”
Larsen said the city has a legal responsibility not only to provide records it has but also records it controls.
‘Open process’ backed
James Douglas, a law professor and president of the Houston branch of the NAACP, questioned the necessity of an executive search firm. Douglas said Turner’s transition team has advised him he will be contacted but so far has not sought his organization’s input.
“My personal feeling is I think it ought to be an open process,” Douglas said.
In 2010, responding to an open records request from the Chronicle, Parker released applications of candidates who were screened by the Police Executive Research Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Washington.
Parker, who took office Jan. 1, 2010, announced the appointment of former Police Chief Charles McClelland in late March of that year.
McClelland announced his retirement shortly after Turner took office in January. Turner appointed Executive Assistant Chief Martha Montalvo to serve as interim chief Feb. 18.
After the Chronicle made a similar open records request for chief applicants this year, Turner’s staff first sought an attorney general’s opinion to allow them to withhold the information. The city later withdrew its AG request, saying it had no records of any kind relating to applicants for the chief’s job.
“The city does not have any responsive information,” said Evans, Turner’s director of communications. “As was the case with the City Attorney, this is being handled as part of the transition process.”
The city charter calls for the mayor to appoint the police chief, and the City Council must vote to approve Turner’s selection.
The job of running Houston’s police department has been the subject of nationwide advertisements in trade publications that make note of the mayor’s goal of transparency in HPD.
“Mayor Turner is committed to implementing a strong community policing model, adding new police officers and improving both transparency and accountability,” the ad says.
David Mincberg, a businessman who heads Turner’s transition team, also declined comment on the search or the use of the executive search firm.
Council member Michael Kubosh said he was troubled when informed of the no-fee deal, citing other problems the city has encountered using pro-bono services.
“How can I be opposed to it when I didn’t even know it existed?” said Kubosh. “I was never briefed on it.”
Larsen, the open records advocate, said the acceptance of free services by the mayor gives the appearance of an under-the-table deal.
“It’s a lot of trouble that Russell Reynolds is going to – trouble, time and expense – to do this for the city. It’s hard to imagine why they’d do that for free, unless they are expecting future business,” Larsen said. “And it’s hard to believe there is nothing in writing setting out what their responsibilities are. If there’s some kind of dispute over this point, how is it going to be settled? Even though it is pro bono, this is a big deal.”
Refusal to comment
Stephen Newton, the Russell Reynolds executive assigned to the HPD search, said via email that his firm would not discuss any aspect of its arrangement and services to the mayor, including providing the names of potential applicants.
To date, two of HPD’s executive assistant chiefs, Michael Dirden and George Buenick, along with former Metro Police Chief and ex-HPD Captain Victor Rodriguez, have confirmed they have contacted the mayor’s office about the job.
Dirden and Rodriguez said they were asked to submit their résumé and a letter of interest to the Russell Reynolds firm but have not been asked to fill out an application or been scheduled for an interview. Montalvo also is said to be a candidate, but she declined comment.
The successful candidate may well have to embrace historic reforms in HPD operations if a number of key recommendations by Turner’s transition team on criminal justice are followed.
The team recommended revisions of HPD’s policies on body-worn cameras to allow for greater accessibility of that video by the public and by defense attorneys, as well as minimizing officer control over activation of those cameras.
Another recommendation calls for the decriminalization of certain misdemeanor offenses, including possession of less than 4 ounces of marijuana, criminal mischief, petty theft, producing graffiti and driving with an invalid license. Instead of being booked into jail, defendants would be given a citation to appear in court and pay a fine.
Likewise, persons arrested by city police with small quantities of controlled substances – less than a gram – would be taken to the city’s sobering center to be evaluated for referral to a drug treatment program, according to the recommendations.
One citizen’s group, the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice, recently delivered its endorsement of acting chief Montalvo in a private meeting with Turner.
“I would expect the mayor and City Council to deal (with chief selection) openly and transparently, to let the public give input,” said Johnny Mata, the group’s chairman. “You’re not going to satisfy everybody, but the bottom line is it’s been our experience when you go and get an executive search firm, they lack … a diversity of candidates.”
Disclose the finalists
C.O. “Brad” Bradford, a former City Council member and Houston police chief under two mayors, said he doesn’t see a downside to Turner withholding the list of candidates as long as the finalists are disclosed after an appointment is made.
“Once the mayor nominates someone for council approval, then that’s when the questions should start – what was the process used to nominate this person, and who the other candidates were,” Bradford said.
“Now is not the time to do it.”
Bradford said that before he was appointed chief in 1997, then-Mayor Bob Lanier announced the names of 12 candidates from within HPD and four from outside the department who were vying for the position.
“I recall when 12 of us were competing, there were some nasty things that happened,” he said.
The mayor’s office said there is no timetable for selecting a chief.