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The Best Show in Town: City Council Member Helena Brown

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Meet Helena Brown. The zany rookie Houston City Council member from District A has made the news again, this time for the resignations of her two highest ranking staff members. It’s just the latest in the saga of the council’s most conservative and outspoken member, a 34-year-old former receptionist who lives with her parents and sticks to her guns.

The Houston Chronicle reported Monday that Brown’s chief of staff, Leticia Ablaza, and chief deputy director, Rasuali Bray, have resigned. Another staffer resigned in March.

Brown had previously garnered press for having the council’s only part-time staff, two of whom worked 22 hours a week and five of whom worked 39, classifying all as part-time employees, which denies them health insurance, pensions, or vacations.

A statement from her office at the time characterized this as fiscal conservatism, claiming, “The Council Member and all her staff were offered benefits but declined, choosing to opt for their own health care coverage in the private sector where it is more cost effective for employees, and let us not forget, for the City too!”

That enthusiastic budget hawkery has been Brown’s hallmark in the first few months of her two-year term. By February, she had already voted against spending on “the renovation of a women’s shelter, a street’s reconstruction, the purchase of a police boat, payment to caregivers for the chronically ill, a study on people at risk for HIV infection, gas cards and the cleaning of public pools,” noted the Chronicle.

District A is the Spring Branch area, a multi-ethnic blend of working-class and middle class homes, townhomes, and apartments. In its endorsement of the one-term incumbent, Brenda Stardig, the Chronicle observed that Spring Branch is poised for economic growth but struggles with traffic, drainage, and public safety problems. Houston blogger Charles Kuffner wondered presciently, after Brown won the 2011 election with eight percent turn-out, “It will be interesting to see how CM-Elect Helena Brown reconciles her professed political beliefs with the sort of things that constituents tend to expect to get done. Maybe there is such a thing as a Republican pothole.”

Or not.

For someone in city government, Brown seems to have a very limited, tea party-flavored idea of what the government should do. At a recent meeting, she voted against two energy-efficient building projects because she felt they were part of the U.N.’s Agenda 21, a non-binding resolution to combat city sprawl passed in 1992. Conspiracy theorists on the far right have trotted out Agenda 21 as a bogeyman equating green initiatives with foreign control.

“This is the United States of America. We don’t answer to anyone but the good old U. S. of A.,” Brown said during the April 11 meeting, teetering on self-parody. “By this vote, we’re giving $26 million to a non-American initiative and interests.” She also voted for another LEED-certified project because it came in under budget, but intoned, “Let the citizens of Houston hereby know that promoting expensive artwork and conforming to Agenda 21 has priority over their well-being.”

Such pronouncements are common, made for an audience but having little effect, since Brown’s is often the only “no” vote. At the same meeting where she invoked Agenda 21, Brown also voted against funding for a long-standing program that provides birth control and education to low-income women. Her remarks, taken verbatim from video of the meeting, are worth reading in full.

“This item, number 12, an authoritarian type item here. First of all, we do not have the money. We don’t have a printing press at City Hall. The city’s broke, the state is going broke, the federal government is going broke, and to continue throwing money, hard-earned constituent tax dollars on stuff such as this, um. How about showing our young people how to free themselves from the slavery of sexual promiscuity and empowering them through abstinence education? Perhaps for some that’s a shocking consideration, but, you know, our nation needs to return to our foundation of Biblical principles being taught in schools, versus the government trying to educate folks on how to plan a family when they can’t even define a family. Rather sterilize our young girls. My vote’s no on this.”

Brown is a “real conservative,” which is the kind of conservative that questions other conservatives’ conservatism. The Chronicle’s Chris Moran, who’s been on top of the Brown beat, reported in March, “Councilman Mike Sullivan, until January by far the Council’s most conservative member, was so outflanked from the right by a Council newcomer Wednesday that he found himself uttering into his microphone: ‘I am not a communist.’”

At issue was a proposed denial of an electric rate increase in Sullivan’s district. “I understand the folks in Kingwood are conservatives,” Brown said. “They do not believe in the regulation of rates of businesses. That’s communism.”

Sullivan snapped, “Truthfully, I don’t think you have a clue what Kingwood believes in.”

Besides her no votes, Brown has also become notorious for tags. Council members can put an item of city business on hold for a week for any reason simply by tagging it. By the end of February, Brown’s colleagues were so fed up with her frequent tags that they twice voted to override them, a rare parliamentary procedure characterized as a “nuclear option” by Council member Mike Laster.

Brown led the charge against the mayor’s controversial restrictions on feeding the homeless, often chatting with and extending time for the dozens of speakers who attended three City Council meetings to oppose the ordinance. In a press release following the proposal’s passage, Brown stumped for the downtrodden and warned of the dire consequences of their neglect. “This ordinance will discourage an already discouraged people who give and it will further disadvantage an already disadvantaged people who are homeless. Crime will increase as the homeless become hungry and desperate and resort to criminal activity to survive,” she said in the statement.

But at the following week’s meeting, she voted against accepting $1.1 million in federal grants to provide housing and supportive services for the homeless. During her remarks, she claimed that the taxpayers of Houston spend $500 million annually on services to the homeless.

Her office hasn’t responded to requests for comment.

Brown has 20 months left in her term.

Emily DePrang joined The Texas Observer in 2011 as a staff writer covering criminal justice and public health. Before that, she was nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. Before that, she was a waitress. She's also appeared in The Atlantic, Salon.com, and VICE. She holds an MFA in Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and has won some things, including the Public Service Award from the Society of Professional Journalists (2012), the National Health Journalism Fellowship from USC Annenberg (2013), and a nomination for a National Magazine Award in Reporting (2014). She still sometimes thinks about waitressing.