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Meeting the municipal candidates

As I mentioned before, I had the opportunity to meet with several candidates for City Council at Kaveh Kanes on Sunday morning. They were, in order of their arrival:

Jay Aiyer (At Large #2
George Hittner (District C)
Anne Clutterbuck (District C)
John Elford (At Large #2)
Mark Lee (District C)
Peter Brown (At Large #1)
Herman Litt (District C)
Brian Cweren (District C)
Sue Lovell (At Large #2)

We had between three and five candidates at Kaveh Kanes at any given time, so between them and the eight or ten of us bloggers and associated folks, the size of the group was just about optimal for keeping the conversation going. One of us would ask a question, then the candidates would respond. It wasn’t moderated, and for the most part people managed to get their say without stepping on each other.

Lyn, PDiddie, and Margeurite have done a fine job of capturing what we talked about, so I’m not going to duplicate their efforts. What I’m going to do is give my overall impressions, along with some specific items. If I’ve misremembered anything, I hope that the candidate in question will leave a correction in the comments.

– First and foremost, I was genuinely impressed with everyone who came. Everybody there had substantive things to say about Houston and the issues they want to address as Council members. There was essentially no posturing, no toeing of partisan lines, no attempts at point-scoring, and as Greg observed to me as I was leaving, no hors-race talk. I certainly didn’t agree with everything that was said, and I do have my preferences for these three seats, but the main thing I took away from this was a sense that the people applying for these jobs are qualifed for them.

– It was also quite apparent that all the candidates there hold Mayor White in high regard. I’m not sure what I had been expecting from Republican candidates like Hittner, Clutterbuck, and Elford (Cweren, like Democrats Litt and Lovell, came in around the time I was leaving, so I don’t have as strong an impression on this score for him as I do for the others), but they all expressed a desire to work with Bill White. None of them raised any specific points of disagreement with what White has done so far. Jared Woodfill, take note.

– In fact, overall I got the sense that there’s a fairly broad consensus about what the priorities are for Houston in the near term: More discipline in the budget, broadening the tax base by encouraging development inside of Houston instead of the far flung suburbs (more on this in a minute), and focusing on quality-of-life issues like transportation and the environment. It was interesting how often one candidate began his or her remarks by saying “I agree with …”

– One issue which was something I knew nothing about but which all the candidates had something to contribute to was streamlining the process for getting permits to build in Houston. Mark Lee suggested that we could improve one of the city’s revenue streams if we made permits a little more expensive but drastically cut the turnaround time on granting them; he indicated that this is something builders have said to him they’d go for. He also talked about making updates on permits available on the web, something which is apparently in the works now. Jay Aiyer advocated allowing private firms to get involved in the permitting process, which would help move things along; this too is something that is in the works as an initiative from the Mayor’s office. Anne Clutterbuck talked about simplifying what needs to be permitted; she cited Harris County’s process as superior, as it only requires permits for three items (flood, fire, and I can’t remember the third). Overall, a lot of useful discussion of an issue that most people probably don’t think about.

– On the budget front, Aiyer talked about using the Houston Community College system for police cadet training (something which Greg noted in a guest post here last month). Both Hittner and Clutterbuck would aim for reducing the number of municipal emloyees – Hittner asserted that there’s a lot of overlap between what the city, the county, and the state do and that consolidations could be achieved by looking at where we can avoid duplicating someone else’s work; Clutterbuck specifically mentioned Parks and Recreation as an area to target for reduction. There was no talk of tax increases.

– Where I saw the most actual disagreement was on environmental issues. Everyone agreed that it was important, and everyone agreed that the rules we have in place should be enforced. Aiyer believes that we are at the point of needing to file suit against the remaining “bad actors” who violate environmental standards; it’s the only way left to get them to respect the laws. Elford did not agree with that approach; he talked more about a regional approach and putting pressure on the state and federal authorities to step in. He also said that the state EPA office should be in Houston, not Dallas. Lee also disagreed, citing the bottomless resources that petrochemical companies have; he preferred using the bully pulpit to apply a little shame to them for not being good corporate citizens. Clutterbuck pointed out that it’s not just Houston but an eight-county area that’s in violation of the federal Clean Air Act, and that as of 2007 we stand to lose federal funds for existing transportation projects as well as new ones.

– Speaking of transportation, everybody agreed that the Kirby Drive renovation is going to suck. Hittner says he drives Kirby to work every day, so he’s especially aware of the upcoming chaos. On other fronts, Elford called Metro a “poor steward of public funds”. Aiyer talked about an idea of David Crossley’s to gear the public transportation system towards linking Houston’s seven “downtown” areas. I know there was a lot more discussion on this, including quite a bit after I left, so I’m going to punt this to Robin and Christof of the CTC in the hope that they will post something in their forum that I can link to.

– I had to leave before Cweren, Litt, and Lovell joined in on the main conversation, but I did at least get to talk to Cweren about his domain grab. He told me that what gave him the idea for this was discovering that a Google search on his name also returned a link to Anne Clutterbuck’s site – apparently, his name is a keyword for her site. For what it’s worth, I tried that this morning and only got a link to this news page, which as you can see also contains his name. I did, however, get a Sponsored Link to Mark Lee’s website on the sidebar. Wheels within wheels…

– I want to stress again that there are only a couple of truly contested races this year – primarily District C and At Large #2 – but a lot of good candidates. Don’t expect there to be much in the way of local media coverage of these races. Especially if you live in District C, if you want to know anything about the seven candidates vying for that office, it’s going to be up to you to find out about them. If you belong to a neighborhood association or some similar group, I strongly encourage you to pester that group to organize a candidate forum, and to attend such a forum if one is in the works. If not, visit their websites and contact them yourself, or check their schedules and find some other event they’ll be attending that you can crash. The two elected officials who are closest to you are your District Council member and your State Rep. Know who’s doing your bidding (or not, as the case may be) and make an informed choice.

– Along those lines, as far as I could tell, everyone enjoyed this event and expressed an interest in doing it again. Greg and I are already talking about organizing another one, in late September. We’ll aim for a wider audience next time. More details as we figure them out.

Questions? Comments? Let me know. And thanks again to everyone who came out to talk to us.

UPDATE: Here’s Greg‘s take. Things apparently got a little feistier after I left.

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  1. matth says:

    What did you think of Pete Brown?

  2. Matt – I didn’t get much of a chance to talk to him, since he arrived about 15 minutes before I left. I already have a favorable impression of him, however. I’ve run into him multiple times at various events around town, especially at forums related to the I-45 expansion. I’d have liked to have gotten to talk to him more, but he’s already got plenty of credibility with me.

  3. Texas blogs and bloggers

    A summary of what’s happening elsewhere online in Deep-In-The-Hearta: