Questions came in hot as voters got to know Huntsville City Council and Huntsville ISD Board of Trustees candidates during rapid-fire, 45-minute sessions at a non-partisan debate on Monday.
Three of the HISD candidates and five community members running for city council answered questions from moderator Darren Grant, which were derived from voter queries.
In one of the more fiery question-and-answer sessions, Huntsville City Council Ward 4 candidates Jeff Lane, Joe Rodriquez and Emily Fuller sparred over a recent annexation vote, where the city council expanded its borders by nearly 12 square-miles.
Rodriquez, who voted for the measures last week, doubled down during the evening debate, while also remaining vague at the urging of the city’s legal council.
“There will be a time when people come up and ask you to vote a certain way … and sometimes you are going to have to disregard personal preferences and do what you think is best for the city as a whole,” Rodriquez told the other candidates. “That is the reason I voted for the annexations.”
Lane and Fuller each said that the landowners should have had more of a say so if their land is being annexed.
“I believe we should do what’s right for the city and what’s right for the people of the city,” Lane said. “Legal issues aside, we need to move forward, get new ward maps drawn and take our new citizen’s words as equally as ours.”
Ward 1 candidate Daiquiri Beebe said she supported the annexation.
“I believe that it was a wise decision,” Beebe said. “It’s important to have more without our city … as our city grows we need to have a say in what development is being built around the city, and this will help with that. It’s a difficult situation, but growth is important and as times change things like annexation need to happen.”
Ward 3 candidate Blake Irving declined to comment.
City council candidates also took time to address future business growth within the city as the population continues to move towards the city.
“I think this city needs to open doors to industry, but also refrain from subsidies,” Lane said. “Developers are coming … Houston is growing and it’s coming this way.”
Rodriquez point and a 280 agreement that the city signed with Weatherford International last year, which called for a $20 million development. However, construction has been delayed a bit due to a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing from Weatherford. City manager Aron Kulhavy has said that seven building permits for modifications and additions to the facility and all of the projects has been completed and that the bankruptcy has not had an impact on their construction project in Huntsville from the city's perspective.
“I would like to see white collar jobs in Huntsville,” Beebe said. “There is something happening now, and we just don’t know what yet. We just need to be sure we make our community more desirable … the more people want to live here, the more jobs that will follow.”
“We certainly want larger businesses, but want to keep that small-town feel,” Fuller added. “We are not Conroe … we’re not that big. We have mom and pop stores and those are all thriving. I’m a huge proponent of growth in moderation, but we have to be sure it is sustainable.”
Candidates also disagreed on the city’s relationship with Sam Houston State University and its large student population. Three of the candidates stated that they felt the university needs to pull more weight with Irving saying he felt like the city “has been bullied by the university.”
“I feel like we must recognize that most of the students are here during the fall and spring semester, so we have to recognize the large economic decline when school is not in session,” Irving said.
However, most candidates touted the benefit of the university and it’s students in Huntsville.
“I love having the university on our doorstep and I believe it is a huge part of our local economy,” Fuller said. “But, I do feel that we don’t have enough housing here, so we should do whatever we can to help improve the apartment complexes and ease the strain on the university.”
Ward 1 candidate Joshua Baker and Ward 3 candidate Mauer Hedspetch did not participate in the debate, while Ward 2 candidate Timothy Davis announced his withdrawal from the race prior to the debate.