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Woodlands board members see benefits in proposed election, term changes

January 9, 2019

State Rep. Steve Toth, back in office after a more than five-year hiatus, recently said one of his legislative priorities would be to possibly change details of The Woodlands Township Board of Directors elections, holding the elections in only even-number years, and also possibly extending the term of office for a director from the current two years to four years.

However, the possible changes were news to several members of the township board, who told The Villager they were unaware of Toth’s proposal. The idea also faces several administrative hurdles, as potential changes would first need to be approved by the township board as a “legislative initiative” before then being voted on in the state legislature as an amendment to the current enabling legislation that created the township.

Township board Chairman Gordy Bunch said there are too many questions at this time — both legally as well as the unknown aspect of The Woodlands possibly incorporating — to substantively say Toth’s proposal would be successful.

“(Toth) had mentioned that he was interested (in changes),” Bunch said. “But we have not had any meeting regarding legislative issues. We will likely do that this month. I spoke with Steve last night about the proposal.”

Bunch said while he feels a four-year term would beneficial for directors, he added that the issue of possible incorporation of the township could muddy the waters when it comes to potential changes in term legth and election dates. If the township did incorporate, it would immediately become a general law city with an interim city council, Bunch said, with the existing board becoming interim councilors.

“I do have a draft (of the proposal) from Rep. Toth’s office now. We’ll have to have a legal review of what are the implications if we incorporate,” Bunch explained. “If you have this bill go through, and terms are shifted to four years, and the community incorporates in the next few years, does that wipe out the new terms? We have to send this out for a legal opinion.”

Township elections are currently held every year, with four positions up for re-election on even-numbered years and three other positions up for re-election in odd-numbered years. Directors serve the two-year terms without any compensation, and are also tasked with participating in various subcommittees and other entities within the township, such as the Visit the Woodlands board and the Development Standards Committee.

Other board members had not heard about Toth’s proposal, including Director Ann Snyder, who said she was all in favor of longer terms for members of the township board.

“I’m very supportive of lengthening the terms for a township director,” Snyder said. “One, it takes — for most of us — a lot of time to be acclimated and learn the things that are so important in the township. It takes time (to learn). With a two-year term, you running for re-election every other year.”

Township Director Bruce Rieser said Toth’s idea is not new, citing his own comments in 2017 that the township may be better served if board elections were held only in even-numbered years. Rieser also said longer terms in office would allow those who are elected to accomplish more.

“It makes more sense to have the elections in high turnout situations. It would benefit everyone: the board, the professional staff (at the township), and the public,” Rieser said. “With (four-year terms), you could hone in on issues better. The way it is now, the first year is a really steep learning curve (for newly elected directors). It takes a while to ‘school up’ on the issues. If (Toth) could get this passed, and it would be four-year terms, I’d be fine with that.”

Director John Anthony Brown agreed with Rieser about Toth’s proposal. Brown — as well as incumbents Bunch, Rieser and Brian Boniface — all made statements during the November 2018 election about how challenging the first year on the board can be for a newly elected official.

“In The Woodlands, the way the current elections are held, there is an election cycle every year. That means the township residents have to endure political campaigns on a yearly basis. That also means we could have a contentious election every single year,” Brown said. “Regarding impact with a two-year term, it’s hard to explain. When a director first gets elected, it takes some time to get acclimated to process, understanding all the nuances of how the township runs and getting to know staff.”

Newly re-elected Director Brian Boniface also supported Toth’s proposed plan, although he said he did not have details on the plan.

“I think it absolutely makes sense. If we want to maximize voter engagement, then each election should fall on an even year along with statewide and national races that bring our residents to the polls,” Boniface said in an email to The Villager.

Bunch said while the idea is appealing, there are still many questions that need to be answered.

“I would be supportive of longer terms on the condition it comes with term limits,” he said. “I don’t think we need to have professional politicians running things.”

jeff.forward@chron.com

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