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.”

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A photo of a new subdivision of high-end suburban homes in Highland, Maryland.
    Equity

    Unpacking the Power of Privileged Neighborhoods

    A new study shows that growing up in an affluent community brings “compounding privileges” and higher educational attainment—especially for white residents.

  2. Map of United States with Numbers on Each State
    Perspective

    The Affordable Home Crisis Continues, But Bold New Plans May Help

    Wyoming fares best; Nevada the worst. No state has an adequate supply of homes for its poorest renters a new National Low Income Housing Coalition report finds.

  3. A rendering of Durham's proposed light rail
    Transportation

    Thanks to Duke, Durham's Light Rail Dream Is All But Dead

    After 20 years of planning, the North Carolina Research Triangle’s signature transit project is fighting for its life. Why did Duke University pull its support?

  4. Illustration of a house with separate activities taking place in different rooms.
    POV

    The Case for Rooms

    It’s time to end the tyranny of open-concept interior design.

  5. A woman looks out over Manhattan from a glass-walled observation deck in a skyscraper.
    Design

    Inside Hudson Yards, Manhattan’s Opulent New Mini-City

    With super-tall glass towers, a luxury mall, and a ’grammable urban spectacle, Hudson Yards is very much a development of its time.