West University’s liveliest election in memory is winding toward its conclusion at the ballot box with two candidates facing off for mayor and nine seeking four seats on City Council.
The incumbent mayor, Bob Higley, decided not to seek re-election, but Mayor Pro Tem Kevin Trautner is hoping to fill the job, while Higley’s predecessor, Susan Sample, is looking to return to office after sitting out two years due to term limits.
Incumbent councilmembers John Barnes, Lauri Lankford and Ed Sobash are running again, with former Councilmember Mardi Turner and political newcomers Rich Beck, Melanie Bell, Shannon Carroll, John Montgomery and Sam Parikh making a run. (Candidate Matthew Mapram dropped out of the race shortly after filing closed.)
We’ve compiled our traditional Essentials questionnaire to elicit the opinions of these candidates on the issues facing West U — and hopefully to offer a few personal insights.
ISSUE: Is the current West U city council doing a good job?
Background: Every two years, West University Place elects a mayor and four city councilmembers. If re-elected, each can serve up to three consecutive two-year terms. Our mayor and current city council are all serving their first term. Question: Give the current mayor and City Council a
grade (A=Excellent, B=Very Good, C=Competent, D=Needs Improvement, F=Failing) and write three brief, report card- like comments about their performance.
Susan Sample, 14 years in West U
Did not give a grade, as requested
The current Council could be viewed as competent, primarily building on initiatives of prior Councils for major projects and tend to be dismissive of resident input. The four incumbents are being challenged by seven candidates, which sends a message to City Hall about how residents at large grade their performance.
Kevin Trautner, 24 years in West U
A=Excellent. This council initiated a strategic five-year plan, reduced property taxes for the average homeowner for the first time in recent history while providing more police support, better security and improved drainage to support our excellent quality of life and decisively led West U through the unprecedented pandemic and February Freeze.
John Barnes, 17 years in West U
Did not give a grade, as requested
I will refrain from grading my own work, though I am very proud of the work of this council, including providing a warming center during the freeze, recognizing MLK Day, enhancements to our parks and amenities, improved drainage and traffic safety, increased security, and lowering tax rates two successive years.
Rich Beck, 39 years in West U
Grade: B. The Mayor/Council successfully performed its duties during both normal and particularly challenging
times. Any organization that does not believe they can always improve is doomed to decline. Two areas to improve on are communication and bringing more creative ideas and solutions to issues across the board.
Melanie Bell, 12 years in West U
A – Composting pilot was an excellent initiative.
F – The Tri-Sports funding issue has been divisive for the city. D – The Bee ordinance spent a lot of city resources on a non- issue. The initial complaint between neighbors was resolved by moving the hive.
Shannon Carroll, 1 1⁄2 years in West U
Current council needs improvement.
Remainder of response was off-topic
Lauri Lankford, 29 years in West U
City Council Members have tremendous experience and skills Function well as a group to advance agreed strategy, vision & goals
Made significant strides in improving citywide communications.
John Montgomery, 14 1⁄2 years in West U
Did not give a grade, as requested
I’d like to thank the current mayor and council for the time they have spent away from their families while contributing
to our city. While I don’t agree with every decision they have made, I am not running against them. I am running because I am qualified and motivated to do so.
Sam Parikh, 21 years in West U
Did not give a grade, as requested
These council members are citizens and neighbors trying to do the best they can for our community, and they have left it better than they found it, which is what we all aspire to do in service. I’m grateful for their work to improve our security, drainage, and response to flooding.
Ed Sobash, 20 years in West U
A-: Very effective
Improvements: Better resident communications, simplify/ streamline zoning ordinances, support boards; avoid overriding recommendations
Strengths: Reduced tax rates twice, long-term debt management and drainage planning, public workshops
on dozens of topics, added Communications Coordinator, improved police starting pay, and benefits, excellent COVID/ freeze response.
Mardi Turner, 26 years in West U
Lowered our West U tax payments. The issue of cash funding for youth sports could have been dealt with better. Continued support of the Virtual Gate and other infrastructure projects
ISSUE: Non-Partisan city elections
Background: West University Place has a rich tradition of holding completely non-partisan municipal elections. But with a recent Republican candidate for county office running for mayor and the West U Area Democrats encouraging Democrats to run for West U City Council, some residents believe this election has become the most politicized nonpartisan election in West University history.
Question: Do you believe that party politics have a place in our municipal election? Why or why not?
Kevin Trautner Both mayoral candidates are Republican. Some of my opponent’s supporters are desperately trying to nationalize this non-partisan, local election. West U voters have historically rejected this behavior. West U voters want solutions that keep our city an exceptional place to live. I am the best choice to do that as Mayor.
I love that West U City Council is non-partisan. There are no political parties to rely on or hide behind. Councilmembers are forced to learn issues and vote based on constituents’ desires. Majorities are unreliable and change based on the particular issue, not party affiliation, making our policy decisions sound.
WU elections should be non-partisan, however, different perspectives and ideas on any team, including Council, lead to better results. Without them you can develop “group think”. One foundational question, verbalized or not, that will guide anyone serving is, “What is government’s role?” This is often reflected in one’s political leanings.
The election is non-partisan. Candidates are not running with a party designation.
Local organizations can encourage people within legal constraints. Candidates can run regardless of other campaigns under a party affiliation.
No, I do not believe party politics have a place in our municipal elections. The beauty of West U is our ability to focus on local issues important to all residents. Evidenced by the number of challengers, it is clear current council has failed to represent the interests of all.
No, totally irrelevant. Party politics should have no influence on the choices facing City Council, such as decisions on spending funds on City operations or infrastructure upgrades.
I strongly support the tradition of non-partisan West U elections. Identity-politics negatively influence policy debates. I’d like to see our city find more agreement, and less division. I’ve spent my career finding consensus on business transactions, and I’d like to bring that attribute to council proceedings.
From my work on the Planning & Zoning Commission, I know that our community challenges are for us to solve together
as neighbors. While each candidate has unique beliefs and experiences motivating us to serve, our issues are non- partisan—we do best when we work together to find win-win solutions.
No. Emergency Services, Public Safety, Parks, Trash Collection, Water, Sewers, Drainage, and Roadwork are not partisan issues. It doesn’t and shouldn’t matter.
No – Our city election is about local issues, not immigration reform or forgiveness of student loans, etc. A Republican (or Libertarian or Democrat) is not going to be better (or worse) at making sure that our trash and recycling are picked up or that we have a functioning water system.
No. West U has a long-standing tradition of eschewing party politics, recognizing the fact that roads, drainage, parks and community services are not, at the municipal level, issues where partisanship has any real place.
ISSUE: Lower my taxes, or not?
Background: Budgeting is tough in a municipality. Unlike the federal budget, our municipal budget must balance – it is the law. Our councilors are pressured by voters to keep taxes low. But then, understandably, people get upset when their ox gets gored. It is not an easy balance. Last year, the City Council reduced actual taxes — not just the tax rate. In West U, municipal property taxes are about 14 percent of our total property tax bill.
Question: Are West U property taxes too high, too low, or just about right? If you think they are too high, how would you reduce them – cut services or raise taxes? Specifically, what services would you cut?
West U has one of the lowest tax rates in Harris County – almost half Houston’s rate. For what residents pay, we receive amazing services. I believe in Zero Based Budgeting rather than an arbitrary percentage. With ZBB, departments receive a blank budget request showing zeros for each line, instead of starting with last year’s budget or actuals. Departments build budgets from scratch, justifying every line item. Requests should include service goals for expected output.
As Mayor Pro Tem, I reduced property taxes the last two years providing real relief for average homeowners – first time in recent history – while increasing police staff, implementing our security “gate” and improving drainage. My opponent never reduced property taxes. When Mayor, I will continue this responsible fiscal management.
Too high. Taxes are always too high until you start to assess what services you want. I personally never want to pay more in taxes but I do want quick emergency response, paved sidewalks and streets, clean parks, running water, trash and recycling and services for all of our citizens. All of these things cost money. I believe City Council should assess what services are necessary and desired as well as monitor cost transparently.
It is important residents receive value and services for their tax dollars, and their money is used wisely. West U has one of the lowest tax rates in Harris Co. The emergency services, parks, senior services, and youth sports we enjoy contribute to our property values and quality of life.
The current City Council actually reduced the property tax rate two years in a row. To make any further reductions, the City Council would have to make hard choices to increase fees or cut services. Hopefully, we won’t have to do either.
Our taxes should be set to include our current services plus a return to funding youth sports. Why do we have to raise taxes though? Why can’t we raise revenue from more shared services agreements with Southside Place, or other small cities? West U has incredible infrastructure and we should leverage that.
Most neighbors I talk to enjoy living in West U because of our city’s excellent amenities and services. Meanwhile, the city portion of our taxes is generally about half of Houston’s. As COVID-19 has brought budgetary challenges, I hope to maintain our current tax rate and our high-quality services.
Just about right. Our rates compare favorably. But, high property valuations mean we pay a lot to live here. We get more for our money than most. There are two major expense components: Personnel costs (129 employee’s wages and benefits ~$13MM, 61% of General Fund), and Debt Service (~$7MM/yr).
Just about right, and much better than neighboring Bellaire, Southside and Houston. Our rate is .294066 which covers both city operations and debt service. Bellaire is 15 cents higher, and Houston is almost double that rate.
Residents pay a great deal to live here, and many taxpayers live on a fixed income. We should therefore try to keep taxes as low as we can, while maintaining the high level of service residents rightfully expect.
Too high. There’s always fat in a budget. Zero-based budgeting is good in that no prior spending is sacred. There are certain services that everyone uses, roads, water, trash, EMS, etc. There are others that are more specialized where “use fees” might need to be implemented or adjusted to support them. There are opportunities to reduce our operating costs and reduce our environmental impact yet still maintain great service levels.