Jason Marris, General Manager for Engagement and Transformation, and currently interim Chief Executive at Kaipara District Council won an Overseas Manager Exchange in 2021. In this first of three pieces, Jason reports back from his American adventure. In this one on Pearland, Texas he shares some of the local government differences as well as similarities compared with New Zealand.
Photo: 9/11 Memorial, City of Pearland
After a 13-and-a-half-hour direct flight, I arrived in Houston! My whirlwind week started straightaway as I was taken to my first host, “J” Taylor, the City of Pearland Fire Chief. Yup – local government does fire and police in the big country! During the weekend, as I recovered from the flight, I enjoyed Texas’ best barbecue which was amazing, embraced a local Mexican diner and also learnt a lot about American football as J was a college football referee for 20 years! On the Sunday, J organised a city memorial for the September 11 terror attacks at one of his impressive fire stations, which was poignant for me as I was in the States on that terrible day in 2001.
On the Sunday, Clay Pearson, the City Manager (Chief Executive) for the City of Pearland picked me up for my next adventure which was spending three days with him and his Council. Pearland is a fairly well-off city of 130,000 folks, a 20-minute drive away from Houston. The city employs 800 staff, of whom 130 are fire staff and 180 are police staff.
My schedule was jam packed with visits to various areas of the business. Below is a summary;
- Executive Team meeting
- GIS crew – They demonstrated their impressive GIS system, which included a layer showing live locations and movement of their police and fire vehicles.
- Emergency management – They take this seriously as they often have to respond during the hurricanes season.
- Planning department - They process big zoning changes (Plan Changes) in around four to five months, with simple ones done in a matter of two to three weeks. They are far more permissive in Texas and the planning isn’t as detailed as in New Zealand. In fact, there is no zoning at all in Houston, a city of 6.6 million people.
- Communications department - They run their own 24-hour cable television channel, with part of the subscriptions returned to the City to fund communications infrastructure. They have their own recording studios and mobile communications unit (see photo above) as a result.
- Governance – I attended their Council meeting on the Monday night which was interesting as it was the first reading of their annual budget. Yup, they do two readings of it! Their Mayor doesn’t have a vote either – so the Mayor basically referees the Councillors the entire time and provides leadership via his speeches. It was close, but the annual budget was passed on the first reading.
- Economic Development – This is run in Pearland like our CCO model, but a key point of difference is that the city retains a percentage of the sales tax (GST equivalent) from purchases. This provided USD $39 million to the city in the last year which really helps fund their infrastructure builds such as pools, libraries and sports complexes.