Council discusses then delays city manager hiring, recycling contract, parkland matters

September 29, 2015

By Sarah Tucker

It was a case of discussing a lot and deciding little Monday night at West U City Council as members tackled what to do about the city manager’s position, recycling and parks.

Councilmembers decided against hiring an executive search firm for the city manager position immediately. Instead, they will interview the top three firms before making a decision.

West University Place has been without a city manager since firing longtime City Manager Michael Ross without cause in early August.

Councilmember Burt Ballanfant asked if searching for a new city manager was necessary if interim City Manager Chris Peifer was doing a good job.

Both Mayor Susan Sample and Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kelly said they wanted to see what each firm could offer in the search process before deciding whether to hire a firm.

Hiring an executive search firm will cost $18,500, not including candidate travel expenses. Human Resources Director Wendy Standorf also reminded council that should they hire an executive search firm and Peifer applies for and gets the job, the fees would still apply.

Standorf had recommended hiring the firm Strategic Government Resources based on its history and experience placing city managers in similar towns throughout Texas.

The discussion over hiring an executive search firm was brief compared to two other agenda items: West U parks and the recycling contract.

Council spent half of the 2.5-hour meeting quizzing Public Works Director David Beach on recycling options for West U. Beach discussed in detail single stream vs. dual stream recycling, previously contracted companies, automated recycling, the Houston recycling industry, and past and present market conditions.

Beach recommended contracting with Waste Management, the current recycling provider. The other single-stream recycling wholesaler in Houston, Independent Texas Recyclers, was deemed cheaper but had greater potential to cost more because of its distance from the city.

Council ultimately decided to have Beach prepare different options, not just single stream, and to revisit the recycling contract after Oct. 3.

Council spent the first half of the meeting discussing the West U Parks Master Plan and reviewing results from a 2014 survey of residents.

The survey had a 27 percent household response rate – considered high for such surveys — and found no measurable consensus for new parks. Residents were strong in their support and enjoyment of parks but evenly split (37 percent each for and against) on acquiring and/or developing new parkland.

A vast majority of residents did say they would support using private contributions and/or corporate sponsorships to fund parks. Director of Parks and Recreation Tim O’Connor suggested exploring this option, as well as cooperative agreements with other organizations and increasing unstructured space in existing parks.

Council also weighed whether or not to issue $2 million in nearly decade-old bonds even without park property to purchase. The bonds, approved by West U voters in a 2006 election, will expire in November 2016, at which time council would need to hold another bond referendum for money to acquire parkland. City Attorney Alan Petrov said while there is no rule against issuing the bonds without designating property to purchase, the city would have a hard deadline of three years to spend it, after which there would be penalties.

Ballanfant has been a vocal advocate of issuing the $2 million bonds and wants council to act on what residents voted for and “has been ignored for all these years.” He challenged residents to submit a petition if they felt that strongly and their minds had changed.

Councilmember Mardi Turner agreed with selling the bonds but questioned if it was still the “will of the people,” especially after Peifer said 10 percent of West U residents move each year.

Councilmember Brennan Reilly said council needed to discuss potential properties publicly to gauge support and that he wouldn’t approve selling the bonds without land for a park, a firm price and neighborhood support.

Mayor Sample agreed with Reilly and also said she didn’t think $2 million would be enough to purchase and develop a park in West U. “I think we need to know what property we’re buying,” she said.

Council had gone behind closed doors at its previous meeting to discuss real estate matters involving parkland, believed to be the so-called Ownby tract at Pittsburg Street and Poor Farm Ditch that has long been considered a potential park by  Ballanfant and Turner.

That property has been on the market for $3.6 million, and estimates for developing it into a park run between $7-10 million.