Page 9


Houston ASHORT WHILE after I was elected Harris County Treasurer, my former campaign manager speculated on my future in politics. “I just wish she’d learn to be a good ol’ girl a little bit better,” he told a Houston magazine, “It’s going to be absolutely essential to her politiCal future . ” Having been active for several years in Houston politics, I knew what he was talking about. If you’ve got a system in place run by “good ol’ boys,” the natural complement is a “good ol’ girl.” If you’ye got someone in office who is neither, there could be trouble brewing. I got this feeling myself when, on the night of my election, the Harris County Judge announced to the press that he was considering the possibility of abolishing the county treasurer’s office. There had never been any talk of doing away with the office during the eight years that it was occupied by my male predecessor. It seemed to me that a few of the good or boys in county government had immediately decided that a grace period for me would be wasted time. It apparently wasn’t practical to make my office vanish, because the threat was not pursued. And small wonder: the county treasurer is the chief custodian of county funds. In holding that office I am the only elected official who is in the position of providing fiscal checks and balances on the Commissioners Court. This is a responsibility that involves oversight for a budget in excess of a billion dollars. It has also given me a chance to work with a group of county commissioners who provide ample material for me to refine my theories about the good or boy style of government. “Good 01′ Boyism” is, at the heart, about one thing: the preservation of power. Power is the means through which people with complementary objectives are rewarded, while those with conflicting objectives are ignored. The Nikki Van Hightower was elected Harris County Treasurer in November 1986. Before that, she served as the Women’s Advocate in Houston city government. good ol’ boy system provides a structure for keeping a secure grip on the reins of power. This is achieved by excluding participation by anyone who does not understand and comply with “the rules.” To understand good ol’ boyism means to acknowledge its specific physical and mental attributes, the most obvious and important of which is maleness. It also involves other characteristics of language, style and insider humor. It cultivates a fearful state of mind among its participants. And Harris County government is definitely male. The entire County “Good 01′ Boyism” uses the rules of the game for the preservation of power. Commissioners Court is made up of men. While Commissioners Court is the hub for the rest of county government, the remaining part of the system is also overwhelmingly male. Of .the 22 nonjudicial elected officials in county government only two are women. Of the 95 elected county judicial positions only 12 are held by women. Additionally, out of 36 county department heads only five are women. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, in her book Men and Women of the Corporation, writes that “Women populate organizations, but they practically never run them.” This applies to Harris County government, for it is a male-dominated system with little turnover in the dominant group. As such, it meets the most obvious criteria for the establishment of a good ol’ boy operation. Another element in the profile of the county’s good ol’ boy network is “oldtimerism.” Of the five members of Commissioners Court, four of them have been in office from 12 to 45 years. Having known and understood each other through many years of shared experiences allows the court members to enjoy a certain exclusive comraderie. As a result, old timerism is often a part of Commissioners Court meetings it’s a type of time-worn veteran mentality that permeates those proceedings. Exclusive maleness and old timerism breeds a particular style of decisionmaking within the leadership of an organization. This is partially due to the characteristics of maleness: dominance and tough-minded decision-making. In this regard, the prestige and status of organizational leadership is enhanced by the absence of women. Certain rules of conduct permit good ol’ boy systems to thrive. These rules facilitate smooth interpersonal relations among the good ol’ boys while at the same time protecting their turf from outside accountability. Within Harris County government the first rule of good ol’ boy conduct is that county officials keep out of each others’ business. Following the good ol’ boy stricture of “no meddling” results in a decision-making process that reflects the rugged individualistic, don’t-tread-onme traits of a male-dominated culture. It also shields Harris County government from serious public scrutiny of its affairs. After all, if elected officials are not willing to publicly disagree on or debate the issues, then the public has little cause to pay attention to their behavior. In Harris County government there are limited discussions of public policy and low visibility of county government and its operations. The subsequent public impression of county government is murky at best. This impression may not be good for county government, but it is good for the good ol’ boys. This leads to the second and equally important rule of the county good ol’ boy system: keep the news media as far out of reach as possible. The media are troublesome and disruptive because they raise the level of public visibility in a decision-making process that thrives best in an environment of low visibility. Moreover, it has the potential for broadening the scope of possible conflict by encouraging the involvement of interested outside individuals and groups. The most recent application of these two rules has been seen in the development of what may turn out to be a Harris County scandal of major proportions. According to former employees of a major contractor, Harris County government has been shorted large amounts of construction materials that were to have been used on the construction of the Harris County Toll Road. Not once has this topic been the focus of serious discussion during any meeting of the Commissioners Court. Budgets and bond packages are passed through Commissioners Court in a matter of minutes with almost no public input and little internal discussion. Me and the Good OrBoys By Nikki Van Hightower THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5