Just under half of Bellaire City Council will change next year as incumbents in each race will either term out or are declining to run, opening the door for three new council members. The new faces will join the council as the city continues its search for its next city manager, which has been going on since late June 2020.

Whoever is elected will join a council that, while largely managing to compromise and vote unanimously on a host of topics, has been split on some key issues that highlight their ideologies.

For instance, the council considered an ordinance in May that would create the North Bellaire Special Development District, a new mixed-use district around the former Chevron campus that stretches from South Rice Avenue to Loop 610.

The council debated over a dozen amendments on the ordinance, with members debating how developer-friendly the new ordinance should be at the expense of protecting adjacent neighborhoods.

Ultimately, the council approved the ordinance with a 4-3 vote. Against the vote were Catherine Lewis, Nathan Wesely and Jim Hotze—all of whom are serving their first four-year term after winning elections in 2019.

Some of the seven candidates running for the three open council positions, like Position 5 candidate Andréa Ehlers and Position 1 candidate Kevin Newman, share similar visions for the future of Bellaire—more residential-friendly zoning—and look to carry over the momentum that was first established by Lewis, Wesely and Hotze.

“What those three people represent to me is just returning to small-town values and honesty, and just being nice to other people because you can,” Ehlers said.

Listening to residents

Some Bellaire residents believe that, at some point, the previous City Councils and the city had lost touch with the concerns and wishes of residents, said Javier Vega, a candidate running for Position 3. Whether that perception was fueled primarily by a minority of active residents remains unclear, though a few of the city’s decisions have done nothing but add fuel to that fire, Vega said.

For example, City Council voted unanimously in November 2020 to deny an overflow parking lot at 4300 Bellaire Blvd., which would have been used by Evelyn’s Park and the mixed-use development Southside Commons. That decision came after droves of residents spoke against the parking lot.

“I believe that when somebody does something like 4300 [Bellaire Blvd.], the average citizen who may not be engaged in any way, shape, or form should not have to be looking over their shoulder to see who’s going to be the victim of the next kind of well-intended idea,” Vega said.

However, according to longtime resident and former 20-year Council Member Pat McLaughlan, needing to maintain and prevent rezoning of residential property is an overblown concern.

“There seems to be a flavor here that we’re going to maintain Bellaire as a city of homes,” McLaughlan said. “There’s no threat that we’re going to rezone residential property.”

Some current council members said they believe the tone in the council has shifted positively from where it was a couple of years ago. Council Member Neil Verma, who won’t rerun in November, acknowledged that voters electing Lewis, Wesely, and Hotze showed discontent with the city’s direction.

“I just don’t feel like that feeling is still in the air,” he said.

For one, the council has managed to compromise and often vote unanimously, Verma said.

“I’ve voted with them; Andrew [Friedberg] has voted with them; so I think the pre-existing council members have done a pretty good job showing that it isn’t ideological in our approaches,” he said.

Wesely said resident concerns do remain top of mind for the current council while also balancing the needs for commercial development. Though Wesley seconded a motion to approve the Chevron district, he ultimately voted against it after an amendment he proposed was denied that would have prevented hotels from being constructed in its boundaries.

“I would argue that the end result of that was very favorable for the residents,” Wesely said.

Common goals

At least three of the candidates—Newman, Ehlers, and Vega—have said tackling debt is a key priority. This comes as the city of Bellaire faces more than $100 million in debt, buoyed in part by bond projects included in the 2016 Bonds for Better Bellaire program, a $54 million voter-approved program targeting municipal buildings, streets and drainage projects.

Their priorities mirror those of Wesely, who raised debt concerns during September budget workshops. Wesely proposed a debt-reduction plan in early 2021, though the plan has yet to pan out.

Another shared priority is a need for improved drainage and flood mitigation; Bellaire has seen multiple flooding events over the past two decades, including Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the Tax Day floods of 2016, the Memorial Day floods of 2015 and Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.

For Position 1 candidate Winfred Frazier and Position 5 candidate Brian Witt, that is why flood mitigation is among their top priorities.

“To be able to feel safe in your home from flooding is a safety issue, just as fire and police are measures that any city uses to keep their residents safe,” Frazier said.

Partnerships with entities like the Harris County Flood Control District and state agencies like the Texas Department of Transportation are key in garnering funding and coming up with shared solutions, said Frazier and Position 3 council candidate Ross Gordon. In addition, Position 5 candidate David Montalvo also placed a priority on ensuring Bellaire residents are reaping the highest flood insurance discounts.

To begin effectively addressing the city’s flood resiliency, city staff, council and the community need to come together to make that a reality, Gordon said.

“Right now we’ve been focusing so much on the small things that we haven’t really given the big-picture issues their due,” he said. “I think that this election, unfortunately, will have significant consequences, where if we don’t pivot to a more forward-looking, strategic approach, we will be sitting on the sidelines for a wide variety of issues.”

City manager search

Whoever is elected to the council in November will have an opportunity to have a hand in determining the city’s future leadership when the council decides who to hire as the new city manager.

While the council adopts the annual budget, has the power to appoint and remove the city manager, and sets city policies, the city manager runs the day-to-day operations.

Brent Gary has been filling in through an interim city manager role since being appointed in July 2020, but no action has officially been taken beyond that.

In February, the city hired a consulting firm, Ron Cox Consulting, to take City Council through interviews and exercises designed to align council members on what they would look for in a new city manager. The council completed that process and has since had several closed meetings about hiring a city manager.

“The City Council has not made any decisions with respect to the hiring of a city manager, and given the timing relative to a new council taking office in January, I think residents should expect that decision won’t be made until early next year, by the new council,” Bellaire Mayor Andrew Friedberg said in an email to •Community Impact Newspaper•.

However, according to McLaughlan, whether the council chooses to appoint Gary or go out and search for an outside candidate hinges on the new candidates.

“This election very well could be a turning point in the search for a city manager,” McLaughlan said.