Thursday, February 21, 2008

Candidates Forum In Richmond, Texas: A Whole Lot Of Agreein’ Goin’ On

Despite the crummy weather we had last night, I kept my promise to myself to go to the S.T.O.P. candidates’ forum at the River Pointe Church in Richmond. I got there early because all of the problems that I anticipated getting there, with the weather and road conditions. They failed to materialize, affording me a most pleasant surprise. But then I had to suffer through a 45 minute wait, a half-hour past the reported 6:30 start time, before things began in earnest.

Yes, there was plenty of visiting going on in the atrium, but I never go to these things to schmooze.

The sponsors, S.T.O.P. a recently-formed citizens grassroots organization whose single purpose is to Stop Tolls on [the Grand] Parkway, put the forum together to give local, countywide and state legislature candidates a chance for public exhibition and to let them hold forth on their opinions on TxDOT’s plans to build Section C of the Grand Parkway (aka Texas 99) as a toll road extending south from Highway 59 in Sugar Land to Brazoria County. See the map at S.T.O.P.’s website.

And what a surprise, almost to a man, and woman, the candidates all came out firmly opposed to construction of the Grand Parkway. Some qualified their stance with an “at this time”, but for the most part they all stood shoulder to shoulder against TxDOT’s plans to plop a ribbon of elevated concrete through several master planned communities in Fort Bend County.

What a surprise.

First to speak yesterday evening were the county sheriff candidates. Billy Frank Teague is challenging Sheriff Milton Wright on the Republican ballot. Neither of them said that they favored a toll road, Neither claimed that the sheriff would have any voice or sway with TxDOT, and both pointed out that increased traffic on these roads due to growth, and growth in the county itself (something that the toll road will enhance) will impact the department’s ability to respond to service calls. Wright then embarked on the grand tour of his domain and all of his good news. Teague then spent his time acquainting the audience with his experience and his impressive grasp of several local issues.

Focus was then shifted to the Precinct 1 Fort Bend County Commissioner’s race. County Commissioner Tom Stavinoha, and the 7 people standing to oppose him either in March (two other candidates on the Republican ballot) or later on (should he win the primary) in November by one of five candidates on the Democratic primary ballot was asked his opinion on the toll road. Stavinoha, while allowing that “growth will happen”, and that there is “nothing to stop it”, made the observation that the Segment C extension of the Grand Parkway is “not needed right now”. He observed that since Brazoria County, is “not doing anything” with their proposed Sections A and B of the parkway, he is opposed to its construction “at this time”.

Dittos could be heard up and down the table on the stage. The lone holdouts were Richmond City Commissioner Bill Dostal, and former Treasurer of the Fort Bend Toll Road Authority Greg Ordineaux. Dostal said that he simply opposed making existing free portions of the Grand Parkway a toll road. He then embarked on an opinion that gasoline tax revenues ought to be restored to TxDOT so it could repair existing roadways. Ordineaux, while pledging that candidates must listen to the voters, then said that if Fort Bend County wanted a Section C limited access highway, it should be built with bonds and those bonds paid for with county taxes, or it would be a toll road. Period.

Democratic candidates Anderson, Carreon, Morrison, Rocha and Wallingford were all in solid opposition to the tollroad.

I liked Gerald Anderson. He looks young but says he has been married for 31 years. His opposition to the toll road was matched by his citizen advocacy of neighborhoods in the Arcola area that still have no running water. Rodrigo Carreon was his usual fighting self, opposed to the toll road, to the Blueridge Landfill expansion, and promoted the notion that citizens need to attend more public meetings and voice their concerns. Marty Rocha came fully dressed in his sheriff’s deputy’s uniform, the only fully armed candidate in the room (that you could easily observe, at least), Rocha was against the toll road, preferring that the county address a less expensive rail system. He stressed his years of public service and his strong ties to the community. Sharon Wallingford always impresses me with her grasp of facts and details. She has an anecdote for umpteen meetings she has attended, and quotes TxDOT officials verbatim from memory. Wallingford stressed her experience with the proposed road going back to the years before it was ever proposed as a toll road. Wallingford stressed her belief in mobility, but that mobility should be all about safety, and not about tolling.

I saved Richard Morrison for last because he stood out, and stood up. Morrison is well-known in Fort Bend County, and will have no problem with name recognition on the primary ballot. Morrison stood up, handled the microphone like a pro, and then lit into Commissioner Stavinoha. Morrison stood out as the scrapper – everyone else was fairly sedate and courteous – Morrison said in several verbal assaults, pretty much the same thing: “If you want a Grand Parkway Toll Road,” said Morrison, pointing, “vote for him” [Stavinoha].

Last but not least, candidates for state legislature, most of whom were seated on the stage, were asked to say a few words. District 27 State Rep. Dora Olivo, asked to speak first, voiced her support of the original 4 lane highway, and parted with the words “I’m here with you to fight for you”.

Steve Host, the Richmond coffee shop owner, commiserated with the business owners who stood to lose their businesses if Section C of the Grand Parkway is built. As an owner of a business along Highway 90A in Richmond, he explained how TxDOT wanted to eliminate his business as they widened 90A in Richmond. Apparently the lesson to be learned here is if you don’t want your business bulldozed by TxDOT, have it in a Texas Historic District. Host opposes the toll road, and says that TxDOT has too much power.

Ron Reynolds, challenging Dora Olivo in District 27, stated that he was proud to be a member of S.T.O.P. He agreed with Host and Olivo on the toll road, but in a gentle chide to Olivo, said that the legislature must not let lobbyists “run them”. Legislators have to be neutral when they are being asked to support a development project (more on that at a later date).

District 26 State Rep Charlie Howard weighed in on the toll road, first saying that TxDOT, as a government agency was “out of control” and will be reigned in, in a “sunset review” currently ongoing in Austin. Using his hand with emphasis, Howard proclaimed that “TxDOT doesn’t build roads unless we give them money”. I’m pretty sure everyone in the audience wondered if Howard knew that they were planning to build the road without taxpayer money.

Challenging Howard in the Republican primary, Paula Stansell got up from her seat in the audience and commented that “I sit with you in the audience”, and proclaimed that she was “not a politician”. In the second gentle chide of the evening, Stansell sent one across Howard’s bow, in reference to his inaction on these matters until citizens organized a grassroots protest movement. “We wait too long and wait for community uproar before we act”.

You go girl.

That brought the forum to a conclusion except for the question and answer period. I stayed for a bit of this, but frankly I was getting hungry and needed to leave. I did stay for one question addressed to Sheriff Wright and Richmond Police Lt. Billy Frank Teague. The question dealt with the Precinct 1 Constable’s contract with the Greatwood community: would that be continued?

Wright answered first, and simply said that was up to Constable Dorr. Teague took the microphone, stood up tall and solid, and expounded on the service of the constable, identified the patrolling deputy constables by name, and talked at length of the cooperation and purviews of both law enforcement agencies. A fine exposition. Then Sheriff Wright asked to hear the question again, as the audience did a fine job of suppressing their laughter.

I have to say this about Billy Frank Teague: he’s a lot smarter than he looks. This is no slouching doughnut-chomping beat cop. This guy is the real deal.

Billy Frank Teague and Paula Stansell are the only two reasons that I regret not voting in the Republican primary.

There, I said it.


Anonymous said...

Dear Hal,

As always I enjoy reading your column. I would like to apologize that perhaps you did not receive thorough information about the format of the Candidates Forum hosted by S.T.O.P. The Forum did not began late, as the first 30 minutes 6:30pm to 7:00 pm was always dedicated to the "Meet and Greet" in the reserved lobby area for the candidates to have an opportunity to speak to and with voters. The Forum began promptly at 7pm to 8:04pm. The Q & A from the audience began shortly thereafter...

Thank you for coming out in such bad weather!

Anonymous said...

"Billy Frank Teague and Paula Stansell are the only two reasons that I regret not voting in the Republican primary."

We agree on this, but your jabs at some of the democrats were unwarranted!

Hal said...

What jabs?

When I jab, it's pretty darned obvious. Was this jab so subtle that even I don't notice it?