My first look into how Mike Laster operates occurred in early 2012, shortly after attending my first few meetings of the SCA Board as a new Director. These meeting dates were never announced to the membership but I attended, receiving a copy of the “financial report” for 2011. It seems that in Sept. of 2011 the SCA Board began paying just the late charges on the Constable patrol contract, deferring almost $25,000 per month until they could collect funds from the new year. It was a marginal idea at best, not revealed to the membership, and by December they were behind almost $100,000.
I was disappointed to discover that the balance sheet did not even reflect this debt, and it was not included in the budget for 2012. With former President and Director since 1999 Mike Laster at the table, the SCA Officers just pretended the debt didn’t exist. As I noticed double payments to Harris County in early 2012, asking direct questions about spending, this conduct was revealed, and I began to wonder what else was being hidden from view.
While pressing for better information, later that year some of us new Directors discovered that we had not in fact been getting the actual statements prepared by the accounting firm at all, but a summary produced by “the office”. I remember asking for a copy of the tax return (Form 990) and hearing board members including Mike, remark that they had never seen one before. By spring it was clear (to me and few others) that we would run out money by summer or early fall and that’s exactly what happened.
As we entered late summer, the Sharpstown Civic Association was virtually insolvent with no patrol contract, no mosquito spraying, no paid staff, and barely enough cash on hand to mail out membership letters for the upcoming year. Whether by incompetence or design, the largest residential membership organization in southwest Houston was rendered moot, at least for a time. That this failure occurred during his long tenure and on his watch is not disputable. Yet, by now Mike is the District J Council Member, on the governing body of the City of Houston, representing much of southwest Houston, not just the subdivision.
Sharpstown Mall: An Insider Deal, Lawsuit, and Bad Blood.
Previously, during his campaign for the city council District F seat in 2009 (which he lost in a run-off), Mike served as Chairman of the TIRZ No. 20, a component unit of the City of Houston. Early in 2009 Boxer Property, who was the manager for the then named Sharpstown Mall, presented a proposal to the TIRZ asking for $20 million as part of a redevelopment package.
As described in the Houston Chronicle, by May 2009 the Boxer proposal was rejected, and on July 2, TIRZ Director R.D. Tanner resigned from the board. That very same day, his company, Houston-based Wallace Bajjali Development Partners — which had no ownership interest in the mall — submitted its own bid to redevelop the property. The proposal, which included demolishing parts or all of the structure and redeveloping it as mixed-use development, was approved later that day by Chairman Mike Laster and the TIRZ Board.
Upon receiving notice from former Director Tanner’s firm that Wallace-Bajjali and the City (TIRZ) would be working to acquire the mall for their own project, Boxer Property filed a lawsuit (Sharpstown Mall LLC vs. Kenneth Li. Cause#200953445), naming among others, Mike Laster as a defendant.
The complaint included the claim that the TIRZ board — and specifically Tanner — made repeated requests for additional information from the firms that required significant expense and the disclosure of detailed financial information and projections, third-party feasibility studies, architectural renderings, among other confidential and proprietary information. (Houston Chronicle, Sarnoff, August 25, 2009.)
This is a perfect example of the kind of poor judgement, insider dealing, and missed opportunities that have plagued Sharpstown for a generation.
As noted at the time, “The allegations highlight a widespread problem in Houston: that developers on TIRZ boards are often able to make decisions about tax abatements — and the use of public dollars for economic development — that ultimately benefit themselves or their projects, according to Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice.” (Sarnoff, 2009.)
While the lawsuit was ultimately settled, the Wallace Bajjali deal was cancelled, and Boxer pursued the PlazAmericas plan using their own funds. Whatever you may think of the Boxer plan, and I think the idea will not likely succeed, it was their development money at risk. But to have a TIRZ insider listen, learn, and then pitch his own deal, resigning the same day of the approval, poisoned the entire redevelopment of Sharpstown Mall.
Wallace Bajjali went down in flames this year on the heels of a more than one million dollar SEC fine and a disastrous project with the city of Joplin, Missouri. Who knows how badly it might have gone, and how much public (tax) money would have been lost, with a $20 million partnership in the Sharpstown Mall with former Sugar Land Mayor David Wallace and his buddy Costa Bajjali.
Mike Laster, the TIRZ Chairman during this fiasco, was sued personally by Boxer Property, and thus became a very risk wary politician. Here we are almost five years later and there is just now some inkling of conversation between the new mall manager and the TIRZ. This is a perfect example of the kind of poor judgement, insider dealing, and missed opportunities that have plagued Sharpstown for a generation.
A Pattern Comes Into View
As we’ve observed more recently, and as will become clear soon, Mike has positioned himself on the side with the developers and insiders. Where was the concern for the neighborhood in all of this? Was that even part of the equation? That mall deal gone badly has blocked any movement forward for five years. What a complete disaster. The Boxer Property folks are not shrinking violets and didn’t just roll over, and they won that battle of 2009, but perhaps they’ve lost the war.
Stay tuned for part three.
Previously: Part One: The Way the Wind Blows