March was a busy month for the Department of Neighborhoods. In just four weeks, DON developed a new system to track and categorize service requests and reduced the number of open cases from 9,000 to 430, according to Janice Evans, director of the Mayor's Office of Communications. And in the final days of March, Mayor Turner and City Council confirmed the appointment of TaKasha L. Francis as director of the Department of Neighborhoods.
A native Houstonian and graduate of Texas Southern University and the Thurgood Marshall School of Law, she previously served as State of Texas Assistant Attorney General in the Child Support Division. She also founded The Francis Firm P.C., a boutique law firm specializing in family law and civil litigation.
"Ms. Francis is an attorney and a natural and driven leader dedicated to producing results," Turner wrote in a letter to city council members. "She is highly committed to uplifting all neighborhoods within the City of Houston, and she will be equally committed to working with all city council members to resolve issues in their respective districts."
As she becomes better acquainted with her new role, Francis took time to introduce herself to city employees and answer a few questions from City Savvy:
Q: What attracted you to this role, and what has surprised you the most so far?
A: I was attracted to this role because helping people makes me happy. I share Mayor Turner’s care and concern for addressing people’s needs. This role places me at the forefront of confronting and, more importantly, resolving the concerns we address. I also appreciate new challenges and learning new things. I have been most surprised by the reach of my department and how integral it is to our success as a city.
Q: How would you describe your leadership style?
A: My leadership style varies depending on the situation. For the most part, I’d say it is one of inclusion. I accept input when making decisions and solving problems but retain the final say when choices are made. This sometimes involves delegating tasks. I am very positive and surround myself and my team with motivational messaging. I believe in transparency, accountability and results. Sometimes, I take a more authoritarian approach with projects that must be accomplished quickly and efficiently.
Q: Your transition from serving as State of Texas Assistant Attorney General in the Child Support Division to Director for the Department of Neighborhoods would appear to be a significant career shift. Please describe how the two roles overlap, and how your previous experience influences your approach to your current role.
A: The roles overlap because both are service oriented and help families, with direct interaction with the community we serve. As an Assistant Attorney General, I served Texas families by helping to ensure financial and medical support for the children of Texas. As the Director of Neighborhoods, the audience has expanded to include Houston communities and I help to ensure the quality of life is optimal for all residents, in all neighborhoods, by addressing issues in key areas. My previous experience influences my approach to serving as the Director in several ways. I’m acclimated to a fast-paced environment where I have successfully juggled multiple priorities. I also interface with diverse groups of people on a regular basis, allowing me to cultivate and maintain great relationships. My legal background brings my analytical and organizational skills to the forefront, bringing structure to processes and adaptability.
Q: You took the helm during a period of transition for the Department of Neighborhoods. What are the current challenges and what priorities are you tackling first?
A: Current challenges include educating the community on what the Department of Neighborhoods is responsible for and meeting the demand of our citizenry, particularly in our Inspections and Public Services Division. Some Houstonians don’t know who we are and/or what we do. Then there are some that mistakenly believe that the Department of Neighborhoods is responsible for every issue that arises in their neighborhoods. Therefore, we get a number of phone calls to address issues outside of our scope.
The Department of Neighborhoods specifically responds to neighborhood complaints related to overgrown lots, dangerous vacant buildings, illegal dumping and trash accumulation, junk motor vehicles and other materials or appliances stored in public view. We are not responsible for complaints regarding garbage collection, yard waste and/or junk waste collection, dead animal collection and curbside recycling. These concerns are addressed through the Solid Waste Management Department. We are also not responsible for conducting inspections for apartment complexes and commercial buildings, sidewalk repair and code enforcement for improper permitting construction. These concerns are addressed through the Public Works and Engineering Department.
While each of our departments resolves specific concerns and works collaboratively to keep our neighborhoods beautiful, this can be frustrating for a resident who is unfamiliar with where to go to get their issues resolved. Therefore, we plan to ensure our communities know exactly where to go and what to do to, which improves responsiveness from all three of our departments.
Another challenge for us is a shortage of inspectors to tackle the needs of our city. We have around 45 inspectors that are responsible for over 620 square miles and nearly 3 million people. Given these facts, my department has done a great job operating on such a deficit. However, it affects our responsiveness and overall productivity. We are working on ways to better utilize our current team by reviewing and revising current processes and considering unconventional methods to fill the gaps through programming. My priorities right now align with these current challenges.
Q: How are you leading your employees through this transition, and what is your message to employees as they adjust to the changes?
A: During my first week, I met with all of the department’s employees and acknowledged their individual and collective value to the department. I welcome and encourage their input on processes and strategy as we move forward. My message thus far has been that I understand they have endured much change before I arrived, and concede it can be tiring. However, change is inevitable and isn’t always a bad thing. We are a team and will emerge greater, better and stronger on the other side of this transition.
Q: The Department of Neighborhoods is very involved in flood recovery efforts for Houstonians. What have you learned from this experience?
A. I have learned that we truly work best when we work together. The collaboration between the city, Harris County, the state and our federal government produced a remarkable and unprecedented response for flood victims. I also learned that our city has some of the best employees anywhere, and many of them are housed in the Department of Neighborhoods. This experience broadened our role in disaster recovery and we met the challenges head on. Finally, I discovered other ways we can be more effective, working with other city departments in future recovery efforts.