Roving Reporter | "Last night the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce conducted a forum for 8 candidates for local office..." by Wendy Kilpatrick Laubach

Last night the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce conducted a forum for 8 candidates for local office: (1) two contestants for Place 3 on the Aransas County ISD board of trustees (incumbent Chris Krupa and challenger Jeremy Saegert), (2) two contestants for Place 6 on the board of trustees (incumbent James Pieper and challenger Michaela Alston), (3) two contestants for Rockport City Council member from Ward 4 (incumbent Barbara Gurtner and challenger Chris Crowley), and (4) two contestants for Precinct 4/4A Commissioner, Russel Cole and myself, Wendy Laubach (no incumbent in the race).

The election for the first three races will be on Saturday, May 5. Early voting already has begun. The election for the fourth race is a primary run-off on Tuesday, May 22. Early voting for the run-off will begin on Monday, May 14. All registered voters in the county are eligible to vote in the first two races (May 5). Only residents of Ward 4 are eligible to vote in the third race (May 5), and only residents of Precinct 4/4A are eligible to vote in the fourth race (May 22).

The candidates each began with with 3-minute presentation. Sorry, but I didn’t take notes on this part! I think that most of the points the candidates struck on in their opening remarks were reprised in the Q&A summarized below. On the subject of the Q&A, I took pretty good notes, but they’re on separate scraps of paper, so I may have gotten some of them out of order.

The first question was to Alston, the ACISD Place 6 challenger, about reports that she was not happy that a teacher friend of hers had been terminated and was running in part with a motive to terminate the superintendent that was responsible. Alston answered that she hoped she was more mature than that. She has a 4-year-old son and therefore looks forward to 13 more years as a parent in this district. When people ask why she lives here, she points to the terrific supportive community. She acknowledges, however, that it’s not possible to tell people they should come here because of the strong schools. She mentioned disquieting test results. It’s important to raise teacher pay and avoid chasing good teachers off.

Saegert, the challenger for school district place 3, was asked what programs he would implement. He mentioned first that it was very unusual to see any challengers in ACISD trustee races. On the subject of programs, he said his long experience in local schools has given him a good grasp of the current programs. As the system’s federal programs director, he has some insight into Title II funds that may be available to help retain teachers.

Crowley, the challenger for Ward 4 council member, was asked where he would find funds to pay for the county projects he mentioned in his opening statement. He answered that many of them would come from his own pocket. He is the biggest landowner in town. He believes funding for development must come from private industry, not the government. He has been working on vetting a flooring company to come to Rockport as early as May 1, 2018, which is the kind of activity that shows up in an increased tax base. Gurtner responded that she agreed with the emphasis on private development, because we can’t just wait on the government. It’s important to attract businesses and build housing. She noted that the city and county already are searching for available plots to accommodate developers, in an initiative spearheaded by the Long-Term Disaster Recovery Group.

Cole, my opponent in the Precinct 4/4A Commissioner race, was asked about his remarks at a candidate forum last week on the need to tighten our belts, raise taxes, and lay off county workers. (Cole stated last week that he would rather pursue these measures than take government aid.) He was asked whether he thought it had been prudent to spend $1 million on temporary county offices at a time of such a budget crisis. He answered that the situation had been urgent, with the old courthouse condemned, and offered his understanding that the cost had been covered by insurance. In response, I agreed that we had been told that the county’s “loss of use” insurance coverage had paid for the temporary quarters, which are necessary to house county functions during the three or so years it probably will take to build a new courthouse. I believe it was at this point that I urged restraint in building the new courthouse, unless the temptation to make it a bigger and more elaborate affair could be defrayed by generous grant funds. I also said, unless I’m mixing this up in my memory with what I said at last week’s forum or my opening statement, that we will need to look to federal, state, and private aid to tide us over this initial stage of the budget crisis, because we won’t be able to address a 25% appraised-value hit by either raising taxes or laying off workers, at least not if we expect to maintain basic services.

I was asked what could be done to resolve the impasse between the County Attorney and the Rockport Police Department. I mentioned that the county recently had hired a third mediator to take another stab at the problem. I said that I had been investigating the dispute vigorously for some months, talking to a wide variety of people with personal knowledge of the dispute, but so far had not been able to confirm any reports of police wrongdoing that could justify the County Attorney’s boycott of prosecution of all RPD cases. Cole said he had no opinion about the conflict, which probably will have been resolved before he could expect to take office in early 2019, but he agreed that the situation with the County Attorney and the RPD needs to be fixed.

At some point here or later we were asked whether we would support a recall of the County Attorney. I can’t find it in my notes, so I’ll summarize here what I remember. I believe Cole took a non-committal stance. I said that, unless the public and I were able to put our hands on evidence that supported the County Attorney’s accusations against the RPD—which we had not yet been able to do—then I would support some action to remove the County Attorney. It’s not technically a “recall,” but that’s close enough and no need to quibble here.

Gurtner, the incumbent Ward 4 council member, was asked something about important candidate traits that I didn’t quite catch. Crowley responded that what was important to him was scrutinizing budgets and analyzing the cost/benefit ratios of proposed projects. As an example, the City had recently taken on a softball complex and a compressed natural-gas facility, in addition to a variety of projects like fences and parking lots. In his view these actions were taken without sufficient feasibility studies or competitive bidding.

Cole was asked how we could get housing built. He suggested FEMA and state aid as a source, but acknowledged that they were too slow. He mentioned the ongoing economic development work of the Long-Term Disaster Recovery Group, including their emphasis on workforce housing. I responded that the housing issue has a short-term component and a long-term one. In the short term, we have to rely on things like trailers or quick-built modular housing. In the long-term, we need to create a transparent and predictable regulatory atmosphere that encourages businesses to believe they can accurately assess their risks, so they’ll be willing to locate here and hire workers, thus generating the paychecks that pay for people to build homes.

Crowley was asked his views on the city’s tree ordinance. He agreed it was necessary to preserve trees, but stressed that it also was important to maintain the kind of flexibility that permits economic development. Gurtner responded that she believes the tree ordinance needs to be stronger. She regretted the loss of trees to the hurricane and referred to the problem of clear-cutting without proper permits. She emphasized the importance of trees and other wild habitat to the tourism on which the area’s economy so heavily depends.

Saegert was asked what programs he would implement in order to raise students’ test scores. He replied that it was not the trustees’ job to impose programs of that sort on the principals or teachers. Although his 20 years in public education has made him knowledgeable about the nuts and bolts of programs, he believes that trustees should not micromanage in this area.

Crowley was asked how, as a major property owner, he would handle Council decisions affecting his real estate. He responded that of course he would abstain. Gurtner agreed that this was the proper course.

Gurtner was asked what kind of industry we should be pursuing for the city and how we would encourage it to locate here. She answered that we did not want “smokestack” industry and would have to work to match business needs with local needs. Crowley responded that we needed to diversify beyond tourism. He predicted that the area will grow whether we like it or not. There is an Exxon/Mobil plant planned in San Patricio County that is expected to bring 11,000 workers to the surrounding area. The new Corpus Christi Harbor Bridge will be much higher and will accommodate supertankers and perhaps cruise liners. We need to be ready for change.

Gurtner was asked was she thought would be her biggest challenge. She answered that it would be to work together to tackle problems and rebuild. Other big items would be housing, jobs, attracting businesses, repairing damage, and fostering growth. Crowley responded that he has his eye on the need to put up good candidates for the Ward 3 council seat that incoming Rockport Mayor Pat Rios will shortly be vacating. Beyond that, he emphasized a careful reading of financial statements.

I was asked whether we might use George Strait’s charitable contributions to remove the cars and other debris from our local canals. My response was that these contributions are not directly in our hands. They were donated to the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, which serves dozens of counties, not just Aransas. Nevertheless, this foundation is among the many sources of aid that the county already is applying to for help with the canal problem. I, too, am frustrated by the continuing delays, and applaud the recent self-help by Holiday Beach residents to pull a car out of their canal. I understand that Key Allegro residents addressed the problem in part by pouring a great deal of their own money into it. I confessed that I had no brilliant answers to this dilemma, though it remains a high priority for me. Cole responded more or less in agreement, I think, and mentioned the county’s continued efforts to persuade FEMA to fund this canal clean-up, though he added that as of last week we still hadn’t received an answer.

Crowley was asked something about the status of efforts to build a YMCA here. He mentioned his familiarity with a feasibility study on the subject. He advocated sitting down with the regional YMCA director. Gurtner added that there was some kind of bond money availability that had expired. Discussions are continuing about adding a YMCA adjacent to the Rockport pool.

Gurtner was asked about her favorite after-school activity, which she identified as the Odyssey program. Crowley joined in her enthusiasm and mentioned some problems with the inadequate space currently available for that program. He mentioned some possibilities for funding new buildings.

Cole was asked whether he would favor reversing the county’s decision a year or two ago to decrease our polling places from 6 to 3. He responded that he thought the county might have had experienced difficulty in finding enough volunteers to man the polling stations. I responded that it was important to have stations in the extreme southern and northern ends of the county. I understand that the reason given for eliminating half the voting stations was to economize, but the main concern here is the expense of the machines. From having served as election judge, I know that in the Lamar voting station, at least, there was no charge for the building (the fire station), the paychecks of the volunteers are minimal, and we had no trouble finding enough volunteers to staff the process.

I was asked what my primary qualifications were for the job of commissioner, and answered that I thought my experience with resolving complex business collapses would be helpful. The county is facing an unprecedented array of complex state and federal regulatory issues, which are exactly in my wheelhouse. Cole responded that he had valuable experience with budgets and roads. He acknowledged that the county expects to face pushback from West Texas legislators who were hostile to state-funded Texas windstorm coverage.

Saegert was asked what impact on the school district funding we could expect from the loss of students. Saegert said he believed the student count was down by 20-25%, which roughly matches the county’s aggregate loss of appraised property values. (My note: this means we haven’t much changed our “Robin Hood” status.)

Cole was asked whether the county’s recent hiring of Bruce Mills, the third mediator to attempt to resolve the impasse between the County Attorney and the Rockport Police Department, had met appropriate standards for transparency in government. I'm not completely sure what he said; I think he said it did. I answered that I had attended the Commissioners' meeting when Bruce Mills was hired, and the only reason we have any information about the basis for that decision is that I asked a number of questions about it on the open record. I said that, despite my questions, we still know next to nothing about how this third mediator was chosen other than that he had been recommended by an unnamed lawyer. This is a big part of my platform, that we need a great deal more transparency and public involvement in affairs so critical to the county’s wellbeing.

Cole was asked about his priorities. He answered that he wanted to help his precinct and the county by repairing infrastructure. My notes here are unclear; I believe I emphasized that there’s no controversy over things like needing to repair infrastructure, so what’s important to me is that we involve the public more directly, taking particular care to get their buy-in before starting bold new initiatives.

Crowley was asked what he would do to communicate with the residents of Ward 4 and be their voice. He answered that it was his practice to go door to door; he added that he has several businesses in town and is constantly among his neighbors talking about their concerns. He is available on his cellphone and is easy to reach. He offered to send out his own crews to fix straightforward problems, without waiting to go through the City, and without charging anyone. Gurtner responded by saying that she too is out and about among her neighbors and available by cellphone. She didn’t agree, however, with Crowley’s proposal for private action.

I was asked about my experience forging a consensus among groups. I described my work as a restructuring lawyer, where deals didn’t get done and courts didn’t sign off on deals unless it was clear there was a broad consensus. Cole responded by saying he’d long been involved in his community, including as a firefighter, and by saying that it was important to work together.

Cole was asked for his views on requiring the county to live within its budget. He responded that it was important to do so. I responded by acknowledging that, while grants can help us bring the immediate budget gap, we would have to keep in mind that the grants are a one-time thing, and not let any money for extra repair projects lull us into thinking we could permanently expand the budget to accommodate that kind of activity. In the long term I think we can best live within our budget by sticking to our knitting and resisting the urge to expand the scope of government.

Gurtner was asked her views on a multi-government building complex in the center of town. She likes the idea and believes it would form the hub of a dynamic city center, as well as a boost for downtown businesses. Crowley responded that he wasn’t sure the city and county got along well enough to be housed together. (Personal insertion: This comment may have been tongue-in-cheek, but it actually echoes comments from the Commissioners in yesterday’s meeting, so perhaps not. The impasse between the County Attorney and the Rockport Police Department certainly is creating an impression of a widening city-county rift.)

Crowley was asked how he thought we could get more apartments built here. He mentioned that he had just finished refurbishing and selling an apartment complex in Harbor Oaks. He elected to sell them as a single complex rather than split them up and sell each of four buildings separately, which he believes was better for the community. He is open to the idea of building single-family homes, but believes taking on the construction of a new apartment complex is beyond him at this stage in his life and career. Instead, he would offer help to other developers to get it done. Gurtner agreed that she would turn to others to do this kind of development. She noted that she was pleased that only one local apartment complex has had to be demolished. The others are being repaired and put back into service.

Cole was asked how his experience as a past mayor of Fulton and past county commissioner would help him serve the county in this post-Harvey period. My notes don’t tell me quite what he said, but he must have described how he approached his job pre-Harvey, because my response addressed the need for new approaches in this confusing new situation, and the relevance of my crisis management as a lawyer working on big, broken corporations whose business plans had been shattered by unforeseen events.

Alston was asked how she would improve transparency on the school board and get parents more involved. She advocated live-streaming trustee meetings. She believed each trustee should be readily available at a published phone number and email address and maintain a strong presence on campus.

I was asked how I would communicate with my constituents, so I described the way I have been attending local meetings and publishing detailed reports on several well-attended Facebook pages. Cole responded that social media was not really for him, but thought that there must be a county employee who could set up a page, perhaps a Public Information Officer, if the budget permitted hiring such a person. He also described the effort he had put into bringing together Fulton businessmen to improve drainage on the Fulton Beach Road, when he succeeded in persuading most affected businesses to grant the Town of Fulton an extra 10 feet of right of way.

Saegert was asked how he would find the money to raise teacher salaries. He responded that the salaries clearly must go up to remain competitive with neighboring communities, but said he was not yet in possession of the information he would need to know where cuts might be made in areas of possible frivolous spending, in order to fund essential salary increases.

Alston was asked how she would foster two-way communication between the school trustees and parents. She emphasized transparency and the liberal use of email, Facebook, and public appearances. She mentioned that, when she first began attending trustee meetings, the faces on the board were unfamiliar to her as a parent, because they had not been present in the schools or the community.

My apologies if I’ve misrepresented anything from last night’s forum. I encourage any candidates to clarify or expand their comments here.

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