Mayoral candidates spar over Metro, flooding at debate

Candidates laid out their stances at a fundraiser luncheon on various issues like crime, Proposition B and flooding. | Dakota Rosales/The Cougar

The Hobby School of Public Affairs hosted a luncheon fundraiser at the Wortham Theater Center showcasing a debate between candidates running for Houston mayor. 

Mayor Sylvester Turner and Tony Buzbee, both UH alumni, alongside former Kemah Mayor Bill King and former Houston city councilwoman Sue Lovell, sparred over hot-topic issues like flooding, drainage fees, property tax caps, and Metro expansion projects.

“Our city is at a crossroads,” Buzbee said. “Are we gonna be the city we know we can be? The city of integration and technology where everyone has a seat at the table?”

Shern-Min Chow, KHOU reporter, and Richard Murray, a UH political science professor moderated the debate. 

Houston’s flooding problem

The first topic discussed during the debate has been a prevalent issue: flooding in the Houston area and drainage costs. 

“The drainage fee right now is not being spent on drainage. That’s a fact,” Buzbee said. “We’re paying for this fee. We should spend 100 percent of that on drainage.”

Turner responded by explaining that the streets of Houston are a part of the drainage system, and that half of the fee is spent on drainage and the other half is spent on the streets. 

Lovell and King both had different theories on how to solve the problem. Lovell introduced the idea of replacing concrete streets and driveways with crushed granite as a solution.

King said if Houston builds higher, flood waters will go down. 

Metro expansion

The candidates were all split on expanding Metro and traffic on I-45. 

“We have spent $2.2 million on the light rail, and we have fewer transporters today than we had in 2003 when we started,” King said. “I will never vote for another dime to be spent to further congestion. Is anyone seeing any reduction in traffic?” 

Turner afterwards said he fully supports the Metro project, which looks to expand bus lines and add more light rails. He said if it is done right the project will transform to improve and interconnect the communities of Houston, but Buzbee disagreed. 

“I’m against Metro and it pains me to say that, because I am all for public transportation, but I just don’t feel comfortable giving Metro a blank check,” Buzbee said. “I don’t think their plan makes sense. Like I have said many times, let’s make every bus stop safe, let’s make every bus stop safe.” 

Murray asked Buzbee about his plans to fight crime and how he intends to pay for it.

Buzbee responded and said there is a police officer shortage in Houston and he would like to be able to put more police officers on the street. The candidate did not cover the second half of the question in how this police officer plan would all be paid for. 

$95,000 intern

Toward the end of the debate there was discourse between the four candidates about an intern paid $95,000 by the city. 

“I have to speak truth. The mayor claims he cares about millennials,” said Buzbee. “In fact the city was going bankrupt where we cannot afford to pay our firefighters, so he decided to sue the firefighters.”

Buzbee said he had the three emails used to correspond between the intern and Turner and the current mayor has previously denied knowing who the intern in question was. 

“I want more millennials to be working at city hall, and I want to pay them what they’re worth,” Turner said. “This particular position was an executive position, it was not an intern who was eighteen or nineteen years old. The pay range is determined by human resources, not by me.”

UH representation

Both Turner and King had a chat with President Renu Khator before the debate.

The tickets to the luncheon went toward the 2020 Leland Fellows program, which supports undergraduate students working as full-time interns for Texas congressional members in Washington D.C. 

Closing out

As the debate drew to a close, the moderators asked the candidates for final statements.

Lovell, who managed to hold an at-large position from 2006 to 2012 as a Houston politician, explained why she decided to run for mayor this year even though some people around her had doubts.

“First I was elected, everybody said that I couldn’t win the first time, but we won,” Lovell said. “At this time I take no endorsements, and I know I’ve had a hard time raising money, not because of opportunity, but people are afraid to get a call from the mayor.”

Turner’s optimistic view garnered much applause.

“This city is moving, and I ask for another four years,” Turner said.

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