Showdown at the Shore

Thrill to the battle of the boardwalk brawlers of Kemah versus the maulers of Clear Lake Shores. Sales-tax slugfests, counterpunches to kayo streets and a flurry of jabs have jolted city services in a municipal grudge match yet to end.

The school board eventually approved letting Clear Lake Shores annex the needed piece of land last August. (A few months later, they found out about the boat-storage facility, a matter of timing that board president Tomasi won't comment upon.)

Kemah had been providing jail and dispatch service for the Clear Lake Shores police department, but King put a stop to it. "We were charging them $1,000 a month, a completely nominal cost," he says. "I had my chief look into it, and he said the cost was really $6,000 a month. I told Ted, and he said, 'Not one cent more, period, end of negotiation.' "

"That was one of his strokes of genius," Guthrie says derisively. "So we just went to Hitchcock." That city, 30 miles away, now provides the services for about the same cost.

Kemah Mayor Bill King professes to be baffled by his Clear Lake Shores counterpart.
Monica Fuentes
Kemah Mayor Bill King professes to be baffled by his Clear Lake Shores counterpart.
Strip annexation by Clear Lake Shores bypassed unincorporated Lazy Bend to reach the tax-rich shopping area. larger view
Strip annexation by Clear Lake Shores bypassed unincorporated Lazy Bend to reach the tax-rich shopping area. larger view

He's similarly dismissive about being compared to Castro in a letter King sent to Clear Lake Shores residents. "It was just a bunch of garbage, typical King stuff," he says.

King doesn't back down from the letter or the reference to the communist leader. He says he wrote the letter because Guthrie had been telling residents that Kemah was trying to block the smaller city's chance for progress.

"The Castro analogy is very appropriate," he says, "because it's the same strategy: If you have problems, you change people's focus to some imagined enemy that's supposed to be the real cause of it all."

King says he's flabbergasted by some of Guthrie's actions. When heavy rains hit the area last summer, King says, he offered Kemah's mosquito-spraying trucks to Clear Lake Shores but was turned down.

"He says it was because I'm untrustworthy. What does he think, I was going to spray poison over there?"

Guthrie says King's ultimate goal is to absorb Clear Lake Shores and Lazy Bend into Kemah. "This is all an ego trip for him," he says.

King says a merger would make sense. "It would cut $500,000 out of our combined budgets." Getting rid of the "jurisdictional quagmire" that includes two cities, two water districts and a municipal utility district would spur development, he says.

The merger idea has been around for decades but never got off the ground. Even King admits residents of both cities would probably oppose it, but, he says, "when you look at it unemotionally, it makes sense."

Not always, says one economist. Merging can take away competition between cities just like it does between stores, says Steven Craig, an economics professor at the University of Houston's Center for Public Policy.

"It's always tempting to think that if there was a monopoly by merging into one city, that they'd plan everything right, but human nature doesn't work that way," says Craig, who was talking generally about mergers, not specifically about Kemah and Clear Lake Shores.

"There's also the question of the political process, how in touch the local government is with local residents," he says. "The bigger the city, the more out of touch they can be. When it's really small, you see your elected representative in the store, you say what's on your mind. In Houston, you have to go to a hearing, and that's a daunting process for many people."

King is unconvinced and thinks the larger city would work. It would have to be called Kemah, of course. "Landry's [on the boardwalk] does a million dollars in advertising every year about Kemah," he says. "If you do an Internet search, you get thousands of hits for Kemah, you get three for Clear Lake Shores."

Guthrie doesn't see a merger happening anytime soon. "You can't trust Bill King, he's proven you can't trust him," he says, adding that he couldn't be partners with someone who is "trying to screw" him.

The disparaging will go on -- "Clear Lake Shores, the streets there are like a third-world country," King says; "It's a joke -- you can't work with Bill," says Guthrie -- and the bystanders will find they can do little but look on.

"The grudges that exist -- there are just so many grievances, things that go back years," says Lazy Bend resident Veerkamp. "It's like the Hatfields and McCoys. They're lobbing things at each other, and it's landing here in Lazy Bend."

"I don't understand why the two cities can't work things out," says CCISD board president Tomasi.

"I just stay out of everything," says fire chief Dockens. "I tell everybody that the fire department is apolitical, and that's how I stay."

King admits he doesn't see any short-term solution. "Part of the problem is that there's not real good lines of communication," he says.

On that, Guthrie can agree. "I don't think anything like the merger will ever come to pass," he says. "If so, it would probably be many years down the line, when people's memories are gone."

Guthrie's estimate is an echo of an earlier assessment, one that points out how long the feud has been simmering. In 1988 a Kemah councilman made a public push for merger; a Clear Lake Shores councilman told the Houston Chronicle that such a move would inevitably come, but bad memories had to fade first. "In time, I see it happening," Councilman Chuck Ruhl said, "maybe 15 years down the road."

Almost 15 years later, with the barricades thrown up and the name-calling as spirited as ever, peace still seems an unlikely prospect.

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