Council Candidates Debate Issues at Forum

The eight candidates for election to the West U City Council engaged Monday in a lively discussion over issues facing the city — ranging from the acquisition of new park land to outsourcing garbage collection to “transparency” in local government.

And the eight candidates clearly divided themselves into two “slates” — the anti-Super Block slate composed of Brennan Reilly, Mardi Turner, and former West U Mayors Burt Ballanfant, and Bob Kelly; and the so-called “Independent Slate,” composed of former West U Mayor Pro Tem Steven Segal, Sonny Brandtner, Bruce Beneke and Philip Snyder.

Candidates for West U City Council in the May 9 election debate issues at a forum sponsored by InstantNews West U and West U Essentials.

Candidates for West U City Council in the May 9 election debate issues at a forum sponsored by InstantNews West U and West U Essentials.

Reilly stressed, repeatedly, that the forum Monday should have had more focus on the real estate negotiations between the city of West U and the West University Baptist Church — and what he termed the “lack of citizen input” on a long-range Master Plan for Municipal Facilities.

Segal, however, urged about 60 West U residents who attended the forum to vote for “the independent candidates,” saying they would “offer the best options for a productive council.”

Nearly all of the candidates were unanimous in their support for the city of West U to reconsider its 2006 decision to stop recycling “green waste” — or yard waste.

Reilly, who said he composts his own yard waste, said, “I would invite the Recycling Board to come to council, after holding public workshops. We need to get citizen input. If the cost is nominal, I would favor bringing back yard waste recycling.”

Snyder agreed with the idea of having the Recycling Board coming to city council.

“I support recycling,” Snyder said.

West U voters discuss the debate after Monday's candidate forum.

West U voters discuss the debate after Monday’s candidate forum.

Brandtner said that since “90 percent of our residents recycle,” yard waste recycling would be a good idea. He also suggested “a change of ordinance” that would prevent landscape crews from blowing leaves into other people’s yards and city streets.

Turner said the city stopped recycling yard waste because the facility the city was using was no longer available.

“We need to go back and start doing what we stopped doing in 2006,” Turner said.

Kelly said he was “very alarmed when the Recycling Center was closed down” in early 2014.

“That needs to be revisited also,” he said.

Beneke, saying “environmental is my middle name,” endorsed returning to the recycling of yard waste. “If it’s a feasible and economic process, I think we should support it.”

Ballanfant said the next city council “should consider all the alternatives, not just one that has ‘recycling’ in its name.”

The candidates were asked two questions about whether the city of West U should acquire additional parkland.

The first question stated that the city’s new Parks Master Plan does not specifically call for the city to build a new park east of Edloe St. Although Ballanfant and Turner have advocated the purchase of the “Ownby tract” — two lots at 3615 Pittsburg and 3619 Pittsburg — those properties now on the market for about $3.6 million. With the cost of the land and capital improvements estimated at $7 million to $10 million, the candidates were asked whether they supported the acquisition and development of that parkland.

Snyder said the money should not be used.

“The bond money approved 9 years ago should not be used today. Others have a different view,” Snyder said.

Brandtner also said the money shouldn’t be spent. He said he didn’t think the city should spent an additional $7 million to $10 million “to make it an effective park right now.”

“What I would like to do is look at different alternatives,” Brandtner said. He suggested that West U could work with Harris County to explore the possibility of putting Poor Farm Ditch underground, and building a park there.

Turner said she was “very suspicious” of the estimated $7 million to $10 million cost” to develop the park.

“The problem we have, regardless of how much money we have, is that no one wants it in their backyard,” Turner said.

Segal said that as long as $2 million is available for parkland, the city council “should continue to look for parkland.”

But, he added, “The $2 million, I don’t believe, could be used for the Ownby property. I think it’s pie in the sky.”

Kelly said the $2 million in bonds approved by the voters could be used to purchase the Ownby property — or “any property that comes up.” The $2 million in bonds could be supplemented by the Friends of West U Parks.

Beneke said he supports the acquisition of a park east of Edloe St.

“I’m a parks person,” he said.

Ballanfant said, “Since I wrote the $2 million bond, I definitely stand for the acquisition of parks. There really hasn’t been the follow through.”

Ballanfant said the city should have purchased the parkland “eight or nine years ago. Prices have gone up in West U. Well, surprise, surprise in West U.”

In a follow-up question about parks, the candidates had differing opinions about whether the $2 million in unspent bonds is “adequate” authorization for the city to purchase the $3.6 million Ownby tract.

Turner simply replied, “You reworded the question.”

Segal said, “I believe the $2 million is only available for a neighborhood park. The Ownby property is not going to be a neighborhood park.”

Kelly said he disagreed.

“It would be a neighborhood park. It meets the definition, in my opinion, of a neighborhood park. You can’t borrow more than $2 million. I would not spend any more city funds,” Kelly said.

Beneke said that he agreed with Kelly.

Ballanfant noted, however, that West U Mayor Bob Fry “has been counting on spend $3 million to move the public works facility to Dincans. Why would we be considering moving to Dincans? “

Reilly agreed with Ballanfant. “We are talking about the hypothetical acquisition of parkland, when this city is currently planning to spend $3 million (to move the public works maintenance facility.) That’s what we need to be talking about tonight.”

Kelly also said that the “anti-Super Block slate” has collected enough signatures on a petition they have been circulating, in an effort to force the city council to get voter approval before going into $3 million in debt to finance the move of the public works maintenance facility from Milton St. to city-owned property on Dincans.

The council is scheduled to consider issuing $3 million in certificates of obligation, which do not require voters approval, at its meeting on May 4.

Turner and Kelly took exception to a question about whether the city of West U should study the possible cost savings that might be realized by outsourcing and not rebuilding the Public Works Maintenance Facility. Those operations include trash collection and recycling, as  well as fleet maintenance for police cars, trash trucks, street sweepers, etc. The city of West U was recognized last week for its fleet maintenance division by Government Fleet Magazine.

Turner said she “never said” she was in favor of outsourcing, and Kelly said, “I take personal offense” at the question.

In a recent editorial for a local newspaper, however Turner, Kelly and Reilly signed their name to an opinion piece suggesting outsourcing.

“There are very few functions of Public Works that can be outsourced without degradation of service,” Turner said.

Segal stated: “I will never vote for outsourcing our fleet maintenance services.”

Kelly said, “I take personal offense that suggested we were for outsourcing the garbage collectors. There’s more here than meets the eye.”

Beneke said he would oppose outsourcing garbage collection.

“There’d be a sweetheart deal the first year. Then the cost would go up,” Beneke said.

Ballanfant didn’t directly answer the question, saying that he had addressed the issue of outsourcing in his opening statement.

Ballanfant said the issue came up during one of his terms as Mayor of West U. When there was a hurricane, Ballanfant said West U’s city-operated waste collection system was better able to respond to the urgent need for trash and rubbish removal.

“That’s the difference. Instead of taking two to three weeks to clean it, all the rubbish was picked up in two or three days,” Ballanfant said.

Reilly suggested that “whoever spent the time to get a fleet management award…they need more work.

“I hope we don’t have to outsource. You have to ask the question. It’s irresponsible not to,” Reilly said.

Snyder said, “Outsourcing can be problematic. It is a question I would expect the council to ask.”

Brandtner said city services would suffer with outsourcing.

“Our services will not be what we have today. I am totally against outsourcing the waste collection,” Brandtner said.