There are two powerful elected positions in the City of Houston: Mayor and City Controller. So naturally I was curious when I heard that someone was going to challenge the incumbent Controller Ronald Green. Meet Bill Frazer. The press release announcing his candidacy stated:
“The Controller is an elected position and should report directly to the voters, not to the Mayor or to City Council. The office should serve as a watchdog for the taxpayer dollars and not as a rubber stamp. It’s vitally important to make sure that Houston taxpayers are fully informed on a timely basis about all spending programs. I will make sure there is more transparency and easier access to the City’s financial information.”
Well, that was a good start – no elected official should serve as a rubber stamp for anyone. And the fact is that the City of Houston’s finances are a mess right now. And frankly, in four years, the incumbent, Ron Green, has done nothing to help. I mean, like, literally zero. So I decided to meet the challenger and find out if he is for real or a pretender. Fortunately, he’s the real deal – his qualifications for this job cannot be challenged.
Over lunch, we talked about his decision to run for office, the issues that he thinks are important, and whether or not he can win. As for the “why”, Mr. Frazer is at a point in his life/career that allows him to “be a servant of the people”. He isn’t looking to use the position of controller as a “stepping stone” like so many of the people that choose to run for controller. He simply wants to make a difference.
Which is all well and good but “making a difference” could mean a lot of things. I was more interested in whether or not Mr. Frazer is qualified to be the Controller of the City of Houston. And without a doubt, he is. Mr. Frazer is a past President of the Houston CPA Society and has served on the Board of Directors of the Texas Society of CPAs for the past 25 years. As such, he is in a position to be able to tell us the true position of the finances of the City of Houston. Although those finances are bleak, he didn’t come across as an alarmist at all. In fact, he seemed to approach the problem as something that can be solved if politicians are truly transparent and willing to fix them. I think that his frankness is rare these days – are you as tired as I am of “chicken little” forecasts?
When I pointed out to him that the incumbent has touted “transparency” in his tenure, Mr. Frazer objected, stating that transparency is more than simply putting out a report on Friday afternoon at 5:30pm with details buried in the content of a large “report”. For instance, did you know that the property valuation that the City of Houston can tax has declined by 14% during the period between 2003 and 2012? I surely didn’t – it is because of TIRZ’s and other “exemptions”.
The worst statistic that Mr. Frazer showed me was the increase in the amount of money that the City has paid in “fees” to service the City’s debt under the incumbent’s reign: the City has gone from paying $2.53 million per $1 BILLION in floating rate debt to paying $10.19 million. Why?
In Mr. Frazer’s mind, that increase is because the incumbent doesn’t understand basic finance. Even more important, Mr. Frazer does not think that the incumbent is capable of informing city council members of the problem, based upon his record. When I asked him again about transparency, given that the incumbent claims to be extremely transparent, Mr. Frazer reiterated that there is a difference between burying details in a report and being the public voice of the people by raising issues at meetings across the city and political spectrum.
I think, at this point, that Mr. Frazer is running for the right reasons. He told me that he is a lifelong Republican but in a non-partisan race, his primary voting record probably won’t matter much. And the truth is that a city controller position has no voting component. More important will be his ability to do the job, which cannot be challenged, and his transformation from an accomplished accountant to a politician. I think, and hope, that the voters in the City of Houston will place more emphasis on qualifications than on incumbency or ideology. If so, Mr. Frazer has an opportunity to fix the finances of the city.
So keep an eye on his campaign. The City of Houston could really use a professional in the position of City Controller.