HOUSTON – In election years, we see political signs and candidates for public office everywhere. They are out canvassing neighborhoods and greeting voters. Unfortunately, the pandemic has made our elected leaders less visible. There have been no face-to-face public meetings for months.
We wondered how well those men and women are connecting and communicating with the constituents they serve. To find out, we set up a test that would simultaneously help taxpayers with everyday problems that need attention in their neighborhoods and reveal which Houston City Council members and Harris County Commissioners do the best job at responding to and resolving constituents concerns.
We enlisted the help of 20 taxpayers to email Houston’s 16 city council representatives and Harris County’s 4 commissioners. They each inquired about real issues like delayed recycling pick-up and potholes that need repair. In most instances, the citizens had already tried to resolve the issues with 311 or the appropriate city or county department with no success. Each taxpayer asked the representative to respond by email or by phone.
WHO FAILED THE TEST
Of the 16 city council members, 6 never sent a response at all. Those council members that failed the test are Tarsha Jackson of District B, Karla Cisneros of District H, Martha Castex-Tatum of District K and At-Large council members Mike Knox, David Robinson and Michael Kubosh.
Of the 4 Harris County Commissioners, only Commissioner Adrian Garcia of Precinct 2 failed to respond to an email from a constituent.
When we reached out to each council member and Commissioner Garcia to ask why they did not respond, council member Kubosh didn’t bother to reply to KPRC 2 News reporter Amy Davis either.
Update: Two days after this story was published, Kubosh emailed reporter Amy Davis. His staff missed both the constituent email and the email message from Davis requesting a response. The statement he sent after he watched the story is below.
WHAT THEY SAID
Council Member Tarsha Jackson response:
Amy, my office takes our constituents very seriously. It is our goal that every constituent who contacts us gets a response, and every day, we help constituents with a diverse array of problems and concerns. In the five months I’ve been in office, we’ve had a lien removed from the home of an elderly woman that had been placed by mistake, we removed a dead opossum from a constituent’s attic, we’ve cleaned up dozens of illegal dumping sites and have helped dozens of constituents with their water bills. After the winter storm, we helped give water and food to thousands of constituents. I wish I could tell you that we are perfect in this quest to be accessible and responsive to our constituents, but we’re not. I do have three staff who answer our constituents calls, emails, texts and Facebook messages. And every day, we strive to do better. Thank you for reaching out to us, and reminding us that we have room to grow to deliver the service our constituents deserve.
Council Member Karla Cisneros response:
I am deeply disappointed that an email sent to my office from a constituent was dropped. That is not the norm in this office! My team and I place a high priority on being responsive and helpful to constituents who are seeking assistance. We have systems and protocols in place to try and catch that from ever happening, and it happened anyway.
I apologize for that lapse on that day. My team tracked down the missed email. We see that 13 minutes after it arrived, it was logged in to the list we keep of daily incoming communications, and see that it was forwarded to the appropriate person on my staff to handle. Somehow it slipped through and was not addressed. I can assure you that we are committed to being attentive, even if we are not always perfect. Hold us accountable! Thanks for letting me know we missed one.
Council Member Martha Castex-Tatum response:
Thank you for sending your email to our office. While I am quite surprised to find out the test email was not responded to, I appreciate knowing we need to have a better system in place for responding to those emails. I take great pride in the amount of communication I have directly with constituents in our district and am working diligently to restore people’s faith in government. I do have a dedicated employee assigned to respond to our District K emails and as of today we have assigned specific days to each staff member to improve our process. I definitely believe we can always improve on our best. Rest assured the issue has been addressed and I won’t be on the wrong side of this story again.
Response from John Moss on behalf of Council member Mike Knox:
We are an at-large office, meaning our office serves taxpayers city-wide. We receive a large number of emails. Our typical MO is when we receive a constituent email, we go and talk to the staff where the constituent is. They checked with Travis’ office and they said they had responded already. We didn’t also send an email to let the constituent know Councilman Travis’ office was handling the issue.
Response from Shandenia Piper on behalf of Councilman David Robinson:
As an At- Large office we try and respond to constituents within 48-72 hours with scheduling and direct request. We work directly with the constituents District offices to offer the most accurate and up-to-date response to the constituents. Ms. Fisher’s email was received during the time our office was receiving a very high volume of emails. As we researched her request we reached out by phone and were directed to another phone number. I have responded to her email with a document the following week and I hope it will be helpful to her inquiry.
Response from At-Large 3 Councilmember Michael Kubosh:
As one of five At-Large Council Members who represent all citizens of Houston, my staff and I receive a high number of emails and calls regarding a variety of issues. Often, our first step is to contact the appropriate district Council Member to see if this issue has already been reported or being handled by that office.
From the beginning, I have been a “hands-on” council member, personally meeting many citizens at their homes or businesses to better understand an issue and make sure it is properly addressed. I am committed to providing outstanding constituent services, despite the challenges created over the past year by the COVID pandemic.
I am not pleased to hear that this request was not handled. My personal cell phone number is listed on my business card and is readily available to anyone who asks for it. Constituents are free to call or text me at that number at any time. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.
Kubosh also said the best email address to reach him is not the email on his City of Houston website. Instead, use Michael.Kubosh@houstontx.gov
Response from Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia’s communications director:
Commissioner Adrian Garcia’s Communications Director Frida Villalobos told us by phone that neither the constituent’s email or the email from KPRC 2 News came through to their office. Villalobos said it tipped them off that there is a problem with the email address that was posted on the Commissioner’s website as a point of contact. At the time this article was published, the email address had still not been removed. She said that staff members knew there were issues with the email address when they first set it up last December, but they thought any problems had been fixed. She said there are multiple other ways citizens can reach Commissioner Garcia, including by phone and a contact form they can fill out on the Precinct 2 website.
THE STAND-OUTS AND WINNERS
The results of our test are not all bad news. Agnes Rhodes, who was concerned about the lack of fire hydrants in Irving Acres, got a phone call from Commissioner Rodney Ellis’ office within 24 hours of sending her email.
The fastest response and resolution of all of the public servants we tested was from Councilman Edward Pollard of District J. His staff responded to a constituent about heavy trash pick-up in 9 minutes. They had the trash picked up and emailed the constituent a picture to prove it the very next morning.
“That doesn’t shock me,” said Councilman Pollard. “Our office prides itself on very prompt service, being very efficient and having great customer service as well.”
Pollard is the only council member who has created a program that puts HPD officers on the streets in his district on Polaris ATVs in the Gulfton, Sharpstown, Braeburn and Alief Westwood areas. The officers are connecting directly with citizens who send in concerns to Pollard’s District J Patrol.
“Nobody wants to call in a complaint and feel like nothing was done about it,” explained HPD Officer Marlenis Ayala, who works in District J.
“When we get those calls, we understand that people are frustrated and they want answers,” Pollard said. “And they have hired us in electing me to that office to get those answers.”