A 4-3 vote, for example, during a Bellaire City Council meeting on Jan. 27 put an end to a request to consider altering contracts, pursuing legal action and evaluating vendor performance for the ongoing Spruce and Fifth Street Reconstruction Project.
The action item for the estimated $2.5 million construction project, designed to improve streets, drainage and aesthetics, was requested by new Council Member Nathan Wesely and was piggybacked on a requested update for the project by fellow new Council Member Catherine Lewis.
The week prior, the council chose to put on hold plans to embark on a three-year review of Bellaire’s Comprehensive Plan, the guiding document that serves as a policy guide for the council, city boards and commissions, and city staff, according to the city’s website. Wesely and Lewis were joined in their vote to approve the motion by another new council member, Jim Hotze.
In separate interviews with Community Impact Newspaper, the new members were aligned around a desire to increase public input and advocate for more accountability over city operations.
Hotze and Wesely both defeated incumbents after a runoff in December, while Lewis won the general election contest outright.
“That tells me there are citizens that share our concerns, that needed to have a way to communicate that,” Hotze said. “It was giving voice to something. That’s what the three of us turned out to be.”
Bellaire Mayor Andrew Friedberg acknowledged the potential for a new direction.
“The recent election represents the voters signaling a shift,” he said. “I’m sensitive to that.”
Wesely touched on the need for the council and city staff to find better ways to receive input from residents. He cited the exhaustive input-gathering process on the city’s comprehensive plan proposed during the Jan. 21 meeting.
“Part of the problem I have is that it wears down anybody who wants to be involved,” Wesely said. “We can do a lot better on community input than we’re doing.”
Lewis recommended improving public hearing notices by including an executive summary of the action in question.
In addition to appointing the city manager, the council is able to inquire into the conduct of any city office, department or agency and make investigations into municipal affairs.
Most of the previous council shied away from that role, the new members said.
“I didn’t feel the council was holding the city manager accountable,” Wesely said. That was a big priority when he ran for office last year.
The new council members also expressed concern that the city’s debt has ballooned since City Manager Paul Hoffman took the reins in February 2014.
Hoffman pointed out that approval for completed capital projects and those in the works came from residents.
“This community made those decisions over the last 30 years to reconstruct its streets and drainage systems,” Hoffman said. “Recently, we had bond programs in 2013, which predated me, and in 2016, which certainly added to that debt load.”
When it was considered, the city put out a comprehensive information campaign for the 2016 Bonds for Better Bellaire program, a $54 million voter-approved program targeting municipal buildings, water and wastewater improvements, and streets and drainage projects, Hoffman said.
“I think the community went into that with eyes wide open,” he said.
Payments on bond principal and interest have jumped 29%, as a result, from $7.55 million in fiscal year 2016-17 to $9.73 million in FY 2019-20, according to city budget briefing. Total debt was projected to increase from $116.26 million to $123.18 million in the same period, though true figures are lower, Hoffman said, and that debt is headed downward.
“It is absolutely something we need to pay attention to,” Hoffman said. “It is important. I respect that.”
The Spruce and Fifth Street Reconstruction and flood mitigation drainage projects are also examples of inefficient spending, the new council members said.
“The drainage projects are largely ineffective, but cost millions of dollars,” Lewis said.
No time frame has been confirmed for reviewing the Comprehensive Plan, Friedberg said, as council members still need time to digest the 122-page document, which was written in 2009, updated in 2015 and amended in 2017. The new council members will also get a chance to speak their minds later this year when the city goes through its budgeting process for FY 2020-21.
Until then, the mayor said he plans to use his 10 years of experience on the council, six as a member and four as mayor, to help the new members acclimate to their roles.
“I see it as part of my role to help facilitate for them to be as effective as they can be,” he said.
And that includes being supportive when those new members raise concerns, such as when Hotze, Wesely, and Lewis raised concerns about the scope of the Comprehensive Plan review.“It’s entirely appropriate the new council is questioning the depth, extent and expense of the plan,” Friedberg said.
The mayor also hopes to educate the public on council roles as well as the process the city uses to make decisions.
Friedberg already spent significant time discussing those topics during his State of the City address on Feb. 3.
“The process is in place if the council wants to change direction,” he said. “It’s through that process that we will achieve that change.”