Members of the Houston City Council met last Monday night to hammer out a budget document that will guide spending in 2023.
The session came after two previous meetings where a majority of the board (4-2) said they wanted to have further discussions. Mayor Willy Walker refused to call it after previous work sessions, as did Alderman Sam Kelley, who chairs the personnel committee. Both expressed surprise because they said no roadblocks to passage were expressed earlier by the four, Shelia Walker, Don Romines, Angie Gettys and Kevin Stilley.
The discussions came after recent meetings filled with accusations and finger-pointing.
Last week’s meeting had two main components — the adoption of a budget and a contract for the recently hired city administrator.
The budget talk took most of the time, which included the mayor accusing the council majority of criminal conduct for gathering outside of a meeting setting to discuss city business. All of the council majority say it has never happened.
“If you are meeting outside here and talking outside of here, it is not okay that the four of you come in and make a decision on that,” Walker said. Walker calls it a “rolling quorum” and added, “It needs to stop.”
Councilman Don Romines had heard enough. “We have a right to our opinion, too, mayor. You are not always right.”
Walker fired back: “If you want to politicize the city’s budget and continue on up to the new year, then hey, be my guest.”
The four council members say additional work is needed to make the budget fair on wages and look out for the interests of workers and taxpayers. There was confusion whether a cost of living adjustment had been extended to all employees last year. Police last summer received raises of 5 percent for top officers and 10 percent for the rest of the staff to remain competitive in wages. The force continues to be short-staffed. Police Chief Brad Evans, who just finished a master’s degree paid by him, said he could leave the force and make $30,000-40,000 more elsewhere but added he chose to live here to raise his family.
The preliminary budget calls for an across-the-board cost of living adjustment of 8.3 percent.
City Attorney Brad Eidson — also the target of Walker’s ire at the meeting — said the 2022 budget would remain in effect until passage of a new one.
With the issues raised, Alderwoman Sheila Walker said a meeting could resolve questions and also mentioned a hike in the minimum wage next month also necessitates study.
ROMINES, COUNCIL DENY ‘FALSE STATEMENTS”
Romines, a Ward III alderman, and a majority of the council, say they have never held an illegal meeting. The mayor disputes that. City Administrator Mark Campbell has made similar remarks, but seemed to back off from the strong assessment at last week’s session.
Romines read a statement at the meeting concerning Campbell’s remarks:
“According to the Dec. 1, 2022, edition of the Houston Herald you stated some members of the council were running the town outside the wall of city hall.
You also stated after the meeting that it was the truth and not a claim.
You also said many of the council’s decisions are made outside a meeting setting.
Also you said and I quote, “I’m just saying that there’s a lot of meetings that are occurring around this town which give everybody the perception that when you come to a council meeting, the votes are already decided.”
Would you please explain these comments? I would like some proof that I have done something wrong.
I have coffee at Scott Gettys’ home on Hawthorn Street a couple times a week. There can be several people there including Scott, Rick Ichord, Buck Wade, Joe Kirkman and Brad Rees.
I have known these people most of my life.
Can you tell me what is wrong with that?
What is the difference between this and going to the café for coffee?
I listen to what these people and other people have to say about what needs to be done in our community.
Frankly I am getting very tired of the mayor making false allegations about what I am doing. I have been accused of holding unlawful meetings and calling a prospective employer of the city’s former city administrator. I have not done any of these allegations. These false statements need to stop.”
Before the budget meeting this week, the majority on the council said all they were asking for was a full review of wage issues.
Romines, the board president, said he didn’t oppose wage hikes. “Our employees need a wage increase. I just don’t think it is smart on our part, for the people we present, to give an 8.3 percent when we are talking about having to dip in the reserves during the next year.”
The financial picture for 2023 will be affected by the city’s success in obtaining a broadband grant for work included in the budget.
The council seemed to be moving closer to ratifying a contract for Campbell. Eidson, the city attorney, and the mayor tangled over the process to draft the paperwork that started in September with a 9-page sample delivered to Eidson used by the City of Sullivan.
“Three months is about borderline insubordination I would think,” Walker told Eidson, who has held the job since July 2003.
“You’ve sat on it since Sept. 23,” Eidson said.
“Negative,” Walker responded.
“You told me you don’t look at your email, mayor,” Eidson fired back.
“You didn’t send it,” Walker said. “The heck I didn’t,” Eidson said.
After haggling over two paragraphs with the mayor asking multiple times where it came from, it appeared that the attorney had enough information to draft a final document for council approval. Eidson urged it to be passed around the table, and details completed by the council. The mayor was earlier tasked by the council to work within parameters given to finalize the document.
CLOSED SESSION QUESTION
The mayor also questioned why Eidson sat in a closed session on Oct. 17 related to discussions on a city lawsuit against the mayor. The matter deals with allegations related to health insurance benefits received by the mayor.
Eidson said he is not the attorney of record and he’ll provide his advice to anyone who asks for it.
In other matters, the council:
•Heard from Karen James of Drury University that spring classes begin Jan. 17 and run through mid-May. She said half of its hours are allocated, and several certificate programs are available for various programs.
•Learned from Campbell that he predicts that the city’s revenue picture will likely result in no deficit this year, even though the budget approved in December 2021 called for one.
•Heard the improved lighting will be installed at Emmett Kelly Park restrooms and an accessibility issue has been resolved.
•Received an update on a broadband grant application submitted to the state by the city earlier. The city should learn near the first of the year whether it will be successful. Campbell said that would brighten that the city’s 2023 budget picture, if successful, because there is a big focus on expanding the home-to-fiber service in Houston.