I don’t brag on too many people in this space (except for my children and wife on occasion), but it’s hard to contain myself today. The Houston Heights Association has made a decision that might set the standard for local governance in the years to come.
More than two years ago, I shared some interesting numbers with our readers about the sheer size of our city, and giving you an update will offer some credence to what HHA has done.
The area that The Leader calls home — largely the Heights, Oak Forest, Garden Oaks, Timbergrove and Norhill, to name just a few — are represented by three voices in Houston’s mayor-council form of government.
Most of our area falls within Houston City Council District C, and our representative on the council is Ellen Cohen. Brenda Stardig’s District A touches the western side of our neighborhoods, and District H, represented by Karla Cisneros, touches the eastern and southern edges of our community, including Independence Heights, Norhill and Woodland Heights.
While these numbers are easy to access, consider the massive districts that our council members represent.
Cohen’s District A had a population of 199,432 in 2015 — the latest numbers available.
Stardig’s District A had a whopping 281,067 in the same year.
Cisneros’s District H had 163,897.
I don’t know what kind of Superwoman capes these wonderful ladies wear to the office each day, but how in the world is Stardig supposed to represent nearly 300,000 people? There’s not a human being that can adequately tend to the needs of that many people.
Here’s more perspective: Stardig’s district, on its own, is the size of Newark, N.J. Cohen’s is the size of Little Rock, Ark. And Cisneros is the lucky one; she only represents a constituency the size of Eugene, Ore.
More perspective, you ask? If you combine the three council districts represented by Stardig, Cohen and Cisneros, these Wonder Women serve a population with 30,000 more people than the entire city of Baltimore. Combined, they represent 644,000 people, which is just 30,000 less than the entire city (or state, whatever you call it) of Washington, D.C.
Sure, the city of Houston graciously gives us at-large council representatives, but how many of you have ever had a problem on your street and phoned up the office of Amanda Edwards?
One more: If you add up all the council members, including district and at-large, Houston has a council of 16 people. With a city population of 2.3 million, that means each council member, on average, is responsible for almost 144,000 constituents.
In other words, each council member is responsible for a population the size of Syracuse, N.Y., and that city has nine council members. In Houston, our elected officials each do the work of nine people in Syracuse.
The entire reason for sharing that information with you is to make this point: It’s very hard for Joe Citizens like me and you to get access to the people who are supposed to represent us. That’s not the fault of Stardig or Cohen or Cisneros or Amanda Edwards, for that matter. That’s the way our city government works, and I don’t think they have room for another 30 chairs in council chambers.
What that also means is that most of us are left to fend for ourselves, hoping that we can cause enough of a stir to get some attention at City Hall.
And that leads us back to the Houston Heights Association, led by all-community personality Bill Baldwin, who has invested a dozen years trying to help build the Heights into something wonderful.
Earlier this week, if you didn’t see our front page story, Baldwin and HHA announced they are going to hire an executive director. I think this is absolutely brilliant, and I wish more of our neighborhoods could afford to do the same.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, because the role of this executive director will largely be to run the business of HHA. This person will plan galas and dinners and fun runs. The new director, whoever it is, will beg for money and organize the spreading of mulch on playgrounds, and make sure there’s no trash on the esplanade.
But what this person also will do is serve as a conduit to public officials. Part of the job description laid out is to communicate with the Constable’s office on crime issues. Another section of the job says the director will “Represent HHA across political subdivisions (city, county, TIRZ, and superneighborhood) in matters that impact the neighborhood…”
Yes, the main function of this new director is to promote the Houston Heights from within, and that will be what makes this new director successful.
But in a grander scheme, what HHA has done through this decision is narrow our footprint of government, and I think that’s a fantastic thing for the people who live in the Heights. If this director can build relationships with city hall, and if this director can get the ear of Cohen and Cisneros, specifically, more homeowners — the ones busy with their children and their jobs and their churches — will have a point person to address their needs.
All government, they say, is local, and while I don’t know if Baldwin and HHA did this purposefully, I do think they’re taking the first step toward giving the people of the Heights a better quality of life.
Just having someone who can better manage the day-to-day functions of the Heights is a plus. But having one person who becomes a spokesperson for the Heights might just create a seamless pipeline to the men and women in city government who make decisions that impact our daily lives.
No, I don’t think HHA will redefine government through this decision. Yes, I do think they’ve made an enormous step toward better representation for the people who fund our government.