Roughly 300 people filed into a gymnasium at Garden Oaks Montessori Magnet on Tuesday night, as did the mayor of Houston and seven of his challengers in the upcoming municipal election. Many of the men and women running for the city’s highest office, along with some of those in the crowd, dressed for the occasion by sporting suits with ties.
They all left soaked in sweat, at least partly because there was no air conditioning in the building. Super Neighborhood 12 president Mark Klein, whose organization hosted the public mayoral forum along with the Garden Oaks Civic Club, said the AC was preprogrammed to shut off an hour before the event started and could not be turned on manually at the site.
“Things got a little heated on stage, too, I guess,” Klein said. “I think we had a pretty good debate.”
The forum, moderated by The Leader publisher Jonathan McElvy, marked the first time this election cycle that incumbent Sylvester Turner went head-to-head against the people hoping to unseat him. The challengers who joined him on stage included Tony Buzbee and Bill King, the latter of whom lost to Turner in a runoff four years ago, as well as Houston City Councilman Dwight Boykins and former council member Sue Lovell.
Kendall Baker, Derrick Broze and Naoufal Houjami also participated in the forum. Another candidate, Demetria Smith, was not invited to participate but attended and was prompted to speak briefly by Boykins.
They addressed topics such as flooding, drainage and infrastructure, economics and the structure of city government and the quality of city services. Nearly every challenger criticized Turner, the Acres Homes native and former state legislator, alleging corruption in city hall and an unbalanced budget, among other things.
With Houston Fire Chief Sam Pena and local fire union president Marty Lancton in attendance, the challengers also questioned Turner’s leadership in dealing with Houston firefighters in light of ongoing litigation over fair pay between the city and local unions for police officers and firefighters.
Turner responded to all the critiques, challenging the validity of some of the claims and at one point suggesting the other candidates should offer solutions instead of pointing fingers.
“I think he did well,” attendee Robert Donaghe, a longtime area resident and retiree from the U.S. Army, said of Turner. “He answered the questions, and his counterpoints, I think, were where they belonged.”
The most heated exchanges between candidates might have been over the issue of recycling. According to KHOU reports, city workers have dumped at least 2.6 million pounds of recyclable materials at landfills this year, unbeknownst to Houston citizens who put those items in city-supplied green bins.
Turner said the city conducted an investigation that led to punishment for the managers and employees responsible, and also touted a new state-of-the-art facility opened by FCC Environmental, which entered into an agreement this year to handle Houston’s recycling processing.
Multiple Turner challengers said those points ring hollow, suggesting that the workers who treated recyclable materials as trash were following orders from high up in the chain of command.
“It’s really an insult to try to put the blame on those 23 employees, mayor,” Boykins said. “It’s not right.”
Garden Oaks resident Dorian Martin, based on their comments about the recycling issue, said she thinks Baker, Broze or Lovell would be best-equipped to tackle the issue. Martin also praised King, saying he appeared best suited to conduct the city’s business affairs, and she liked some of the outside-the-box ideas presented by Houjami.
Houjami said a key part of his campaign is wanting to limit the power of Houston’s mayor while hiring a city manager. He also described bickering among city officials as a disservice to the city’s citizens.
“I want to stop this madness,” Houjami said. “We cannot progress our city if we keep fighting.”
Some of the attendees described the forum as a healthy debate. Klein said he was glad to see so many area residents in attendance and engaged in local politics.
He also was glad to provide the area with an up-close look at the candidates, whose differences will be settled at the polls Nov. 5.
“It was an excellent opportunity for neighbors and the community to see them firsthand,” Garden Oaks resident Terry Jeanes said.