‘Hands-on’ official named city attorney

Jan. 8, 2015Houston Chronicle

In her three decades fighting blight and tackling neighborhood issues as an attorney at City Hall, Donna Edmundson has worked on issues popular with civic clubs: hounding owners whose dangerous apartments, vacant homes, corner stores, strip clubs or bars are havens for drugs, guns and prostitution, and seeking to raze them, clean them up, or shut them down.

920x1240It’s that track record that led Mayor Annise Parker to tap Edmundson to replace outgoing City Attorney David Feldman, who is resigning next week.

“Her experience within the city is deep and broad,” Parker said. “I’m particularly happy that her recent experience has been in the area of neighborhood protection, which has been one of my top priorities. She is a hands-on person. She’s out in the field regularly.”

If confirmed by City Council, as expected, Edmundson would be the first woman in the city’s history to hold the post.

Feldman announced his departure just before Christmas, saying that he planned to join his son in private practice. Though he had considered resigning twice before, Feldman acknowledged the timing of the decision will allow him to serve as a key witness in the city’s upcoming court case over its embattled equal rights ordinance. Feldman played a central role in the Parker administration. Edmundson would enter the position during term-limited Parker’s last year in office.

Edmundson called the selection an “extreme honor” and said she was eager to work with the office’s staff.

“I’m not going to work above my lawyers,” Edmundson said. “I’m going to listen to them and work alongside them. I understand that, ultimately, the buck stops with me, but I’m prepared for that responsibility.”

Colleagues describe the soft-spoken attorney – a fourth-generation Houstonian, Westbury High School graduate and the youngest, with her twin brother, of six siblings – as tireless, firm and passionate about her work.

Wanda Adams, an HISD trustee and former council member who worked with Edmundson on many neighborhood nuisances, said she has “a community heart.”

“She approaches her work with passion, and she’s very honest and transparent,” Adams said. “Donna would go out and look at the issue. She didn’t sit at the desk. I always used to talk about the landlords and dilapidated apartments. She would actually go out there and look and see and talk to the tenants.”

Serving the public

Edmundson said she was drawn to the law in large part because her father had dreamed of becoming a lawyer but reached college age in the teeth of the Great Depression and never realized his goal. Edmundson said she and her father, who instead had a long career at Gulf Oil, both viewed the law as a means of serving the public.

She joined the city legal department following her graduation from South Texas College of Law in 1986 and never considered applying for a job anywhere else.

“There was always the fascination with the ability to try to help people – and the fact that we grew up in Houston; my dad was a Houstonian,” Edmundson said. “So it was one of those things where you could maybe give back and help your community. It was always a sense of trying to make things better.”

Parker lauded Edmundson’s work to secure a 10-year court order against a north Houston gang known as the Hollywood Click. The injunction, signed in 2011, severely limits gang members’ activities in a 48-square-mile area and, officials said, has cut crime there 40 percent. Edmundson also worked on a novel settlement with 16 area topless clubs that legalized lap dances in exchange for the clubs funding a new police vice unit and closing private rooms.

“The things that we do and we impact, you can directly see,” Edmundson said. “We can get a call about something that’s a dangerous building and get the owner to take it down. You have locations where there’s criminal activity. We can go in and sue them or get some sort of injunctive relief to bring that activity to a close.”

‘Very caring, concerned’

Neighborhood leaders praised Edmundson for her responsiveness. Glenbrook Valley residents had accumulated a backlog of alleged deed restriction violations the city had ignored when Edmundson took over the Neighborhood Services Division several years ago, civic leader Ann Collum said. Edmundson came to the neighborhood and reviewed the entire file.

“She’s very caring and very concerned,” Collum said. “There was a completely open communication line if we had a question or didn’t understand something. She will be an asset to the whole city.”

Councilman Mike Laster served in the city attorney’s office with Edmundson in the 1990s and has worked with her on issues in his district since joining the council in 2012.

“As a colleague in the city attorney’s office, she was a great mentor and a gentle teacher to young attorneys and other colleagues,” he said. “As a person who worked with a council member, she brought that same sort of intelligence and good humor to the table. She has the ability to be strong and firm and definite when that’s needed, and she also, more importantly, has an open mind.”

Fan of fishing, Texans

Edmundson, 55, lives in West University Place with her husband and high school sweetheart, Jay Tennyson, a real estate appraiser. Their son, Kyle, 20, is a junior at Oklahoma State University.

A devoted saltwater angler, Edmundson has won several local tournaments, aiming for speckled trout, redfish or flounder, and the family keeps a boat in Galveston’s West End.

Texans season-ticket holders since the team’s inaugural season, Edmundson and her husband also take road trips on their Harley Davidson motorcycle and plan to attend the famed Sturgis rally in South Dakota this year for the gathering’s 75th anniversary.

Council will consider Edmundson’s nomination in two weeks. Feldman’s last day is Jan. 16.