Oct. 24, 2003, 12:39AM

Anti-rail group cries foul on flier
Metro advertisement inserted in water bill called improper

Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

An anti-rail group under criminal investigation for failing to disclose its contributors threw a punch back Thursday, claiming a Metro flier distributed with city water bills improperly influences voters to support the Nov. 4 transit plan.

"The city of Houston has no business doing political mail-outs," said Edd Hendee, treasurer for Texans for True Mobility. "They are in the business of putting water bills out, not to take sides on an issue such as this."

The Metro insert announces 19 public meetings on the agency's transit plan, informs water customers about the Nov. 4 referendum on the plan, and lists details of the "Metro Solutions" package. The proposal offers "options," "accountability" and "affordability," the flier states.

Hendee suggested the one-page paper, with English on one side and Spanish on the other, violates state ethics laws prohibiting a government agency from campaigning for its referendum. The Metropolitan Transit Authority wants voters to approve a $7.5 billion expansion plan for rail, buses and roads.

To even the score, Hendee said, Houston should permit TTM to hang an anti-Metro banner atop City Hall.

"If we couldn't put that on City Hall, perhaps we could put our message on trash trucks for the Solid Waste Division: `Trash Metro's Plan on Nov. 4,' " he said.

Metro dismissed the criticism as ludicrous.

"This saved public money," said Metro Chairman Arthur Schechter. "We were simply announcing meetings and inviting the public to find out the truth. ...

"Metro has an obligation to be sure the public is educated as to the plan because it is important to the future of the community."

During a news conference Thursday, reporters pressed Hendee to reveal who has donated money to fund TTM's attack ads, including a mail-out comparing Metro's finances to bankrupt Enron and a TV ad stating the authority will "slash bus service, hike fares, cut Park & Ride and cancel road projects" when it runs out of money. TTM has designated those ads as "educational," not political, and therefore not subject to disclosure requirements.

"People concerned with mobility in Houston" was the only description Hendee would give of his donors.

The Harris County district attorney's office, responding to a complaint by the Houston Chronicle, is investigating TTM's failure to file campaign finance reports.

Regarding the water bills, the transit authority asked the city if it could include information as part of its "public education effort about its long-term mobility plan," said Corey Ray, spokesman for Mayor Lee Brown.

"We believe this is very much a city issue, and citizens of Houston deserve to be well informed on such issues," Ray said. "The insert does not advise anyone on how to vote."

Metro printed the ads and paid the city $1,458 to insert them in water bill envelopes. Hendee said it would cost his group $105,000 to mail out a similar flier.

This isn't the first time Metro has paid the city to get out its message through water bills -- there have been inserts promoting its commuter bus service, vans for the disabled and summer activities for children.

The city limits bill advertisements to governmental agencies and nonprofit institutions, Ray said. Other inserts have advertised the county's new electronic voting system, encouraged blood donations and promoted CPR classes.

Chronicle reporter Kristen Mack contributed to this story.