World and Nation

First black councilman can’t savor victory

Sidney Johnson — whose clandestine undercover work for the FBI helped convict five elected officials from his county for bribery — decided to try his hand at elective politics.

So four months ago, after two unsuccessful attempts, he finally became the first African-American elected to serve on the council that governs his small hometown of Waller (pop. 2,800), about 30 miles northwest of Houston.

Johnson’s election by a 15-vote margin has upset the established order in Waller and turned a spotlight on the town’s government, unaccustomed to a would-be reformer in its midst.

The freshman councilman and his supporters say his historic victory has been far from a love fest with other city officials.

“I think they want me to quit, but I won’t do it,” said Johnson.

Johnson, 49, has questioned everything from why the city’s police chief lives in Wharton County and is being reimbursed what he says are exorbitant commuter costs to why the city secretary earns $92,140 a year with benefits to oversee such a tiny town.

Since Johnson took the oath of office, the accusations have flown fast and furious on both sides. Johnson said his efforts are constantly thwarted by City Secretary Jo Ann London and Police Chief Phil Rehak, whom he claims have made it clear that they don’t want him on council. They both deny the allegations.

Johnson said the chief has repeatedly tried to pursue criminal investigations against him since his election, while the city secretary usually ignores his requests for information and berates city employees who seek to assist him. The coup de grace, he said, came when the secretary wrote a letter to council that accuses him of behaving in a “threatening manner.”

Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis said he’s been bombarded with complaints from both factions and their supporters: “They’re all crazy up there in Waller and don’t like each other.” He looks into each complaint but says so far “most of it’s turned out to be political, not anything criminal.”

London, the city secretary, believes that she is being wrongly treated and having to defend herself.

In an Aug. 19 letter to the City Council, London stated that she felt “threatened” by Johnson, whom she accused of creating a “hostile work environment.” She described an incident that occurred two days earlier when the council met to tour a renovated City Hall.

After Johnson received the secretary’s complaint letter, he tried to address how he felt London often prevented him from doing his job in his report to council about his first months in office. But the city attorney abruptly halted his speech, indicating any discussion of personnel should be put on another agenda and conducted in a closed-door session.

London insists she treats Johnson with the same respect she gives all council members.

“I’m just here to help,” London said.