Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Before the law finally came down on him, an infamous Harris County commissioner proudly explained how he was spending taxpayer funds.
Welcome to the latest installation of “Public Access,” where CityLab shares its favorite videos—old and new, serious and nutty—that tell a story about place.
Bob Eckels was proud to tell Harris County residents exactly how their government was working for them. At least in the industrial film he narrated in 1976.
In Houston… And Then Some, the Precinct 3 County Commissioner and his work friends explain to the county’s taxpayers exactly where their funds are going. In his folksy drawl, Eckels describes a local government that is honest and always improving.
(This, as Houstonians would later learn, was not exactly the case.)
It starts with the county sheriff, who shows off Houston’s old official “hanging tree,” which is no longer used (improvement!). Then we’re off on a Smokey and the Bandit-style vehicle pursuit, accompanied by a helicopter and some very ‘70s car-chase music. This leads to a trip to meet the inmates at the county’s modern rehabilitation center, where, Eckels admits, “not a lot of rehabilitation is going on.” (More funding, please!) Eckels then tells, with practiced disbelief, the story of a retired perk for sheriffs, in which they could pocket whatever was left of their daily budget for feeding inmates.
Viewers also meet Harris County’s district attorney, district clerk, county librarian, and—most uncomfortably—the chief medical examiner, who speaks cheerfully over a spooky synthesizer tune reserved just for his part of the film, accompanied by shots of the exposed feet of corpses stored in the county morgue. (“This is not exactly a fun-filled place,” he says brightly.) Over its 15-minute runtime, the film shows nearly every facet of county-funded services and infrastructure, from public welfare to the Astrodome, with short and sweet explanations of their value to the citizens.
But, it turns out, there were a few things Eckels neglected to mention: This story of a growing and progressive metro was narrated by a man who came to symbolize how things got done behind closed doors.
As the Houston Press recalled in 2005, Eckels “was accused of mail fraud, stealing county bridge timbers, and tapping his precinct's office phones,” over his 17 years as commissioner. He was eventually found guilty of accepting a gift from a county contractor—construction of a road on his private farm. Eckels died in 1989 shortly after resigning from office. His son, who became a county judge in 1995, once told the Houston Chronicle, “Dad played the game by their rules. The world has moved.”