Houston mayor's mailbag is always full


Not many of the 11,658 letters sent to the mayor of Houston last year began in such a familiar tone.

That is how the man from the Dallas suburbs remembered Mayor Annise Parker, and he wanted to know if she remembered him.

"You babysat me when I was growing up," he wrote. "I am hoping your memory might be a little fuzzy -- we could be a tad on the bratty side. Then again, maybe it was your babysitting experience that gave you the wisdom to deal with some of the people with whom you must deal."

That is the kind of letter that not only reached Parker's eyes but generated a personal answer. It only did so, however, because Madeleine Appel put the letter in the mayor's hands.

"She can't read 11,000 letters. That's why she has me," said Appel, the mayor's deputy chief of staff. "But she sees a sampling of every subject they write about."

One of Appel's duties is reading the mail -- all of it. About two-thirds of the messages arrive via email, but a third still correspond the old-fashioned way. They all land on Appel's desk on the north end of the mayor's third-floor suite in City Hall at 5 p.m. each day. Appel takes them home each night and reads them, and at the 8:30 a.m. staff meeting the next day sometimes hands four or five to the mayor.

If that face-to-face meeting does not occur, Appel finds other ways. Parker gets two plastic folders from Appel a few times a week. One is green with the label, "Read." The other is blue. Its label has the words "Needs Answer or Timely Read." That is for deadline requests, things Appel cannot make happen on her own, but the mayor can. Sometimes Appel will leave a particularly poignant or important letter on the mayor's chair.

There are a couple of ways to rise above the pack to get a letter before the mayor's eyes, Appel said. The most successful is to be different. The mayor does not need to read another letter about the drainage fee to get a sense of public opinion. If it is a hot issue and the writer sends a note that Appel considers a representative sample of how the larger pool of correspondence is trending, she will pass it along to the mayor. The rest get reported in numbers -- how many for, how many against.

Parker, of course, has 2.1 million constituents, and connects with many at speaking engagements, ceremonies, ribbon-cuttings and civic club meetings. Anyone who can get to the open microphone in council chambers can get three minutes before the mayor and city council each Tuesday afternoon.

However, you have to wait in a line of lobbyists, interest group leaders, individual citizens with beefs about agenda items and protesters.

A letter is an opportunity at a one-on-one conversation with the mayor.

If there's an overriding theme to most of the incoming correspondence, Appel said, it's "Fix it." She runs a complaint department of sorts, answering 4,000 letters last year in what often are her words but the mayor's mind and computerized signature. Form letters are logged, but not necessarily responded to, and other letters are passed to the appropriate city departments.

Appel even answered the one from a man in an institution who was worried that he had not heard from his mother and asked the mayor to call her on his behalf. Appel's assistant, constituent services coordinator Lindsay Lanagan, called the mother.

"She was fine," Appel said. "She just didn't want to talk to her son."

The responses do two things. First, they prompt Appel to seek a solution by calling the department in charge of the solution. A new stop sign. A pothole filled. Sending a commemorative Houston pin to a man in Georgia who collects them as a hobby to cope with depression. Complaint letters about long hold times for calls about water bills even led to the hiring of more call takers. The second thing, Appel said, is that a response sends the message that the mayor cares.

"We are an extension of the mayor," Appel explained. "Public service is what she loves about the job. We are part of what allows her to provide that public service."

The mayor personally composed the response to the man she once baby-sat.

"One of the pleasures of being elected mayor of Houston is reconnecting with old friends," Parker's response letter stated. "Of course, I remember you."

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