Who is Claude Brown, the man, the mayor?
Allegations of threats against public officials.
Recent controversies surrounding Port Aransas Mayor Claude Brown have raised the question: Who is he? What’s the real deal with Claude Brown?
The answer depends on who’s talking and what set of facts you look at.
A number of Brown’s supporters were willing to be interviewed for this article. The South Jetty contacted seven people who have been critical of Brown in the past, but only one was willing to speak on the record.
Brown’s supporters point out that he has successfully pushed, with fellow city council members, to secure millions of dollars worth of street and drainage improvements in town. He has fought skyrocketing property appraisals. And he has won a reputation for making sure the voices of ordinary citizens are heard and that their desires are addressed at city hall.
Brown’s past detractors have said he has set a bad example as a leader by wrongly accepting exemptions that reduced his personal property tax bills by thousands of dollars over the past two years. (Brown said he made an innocent mistake on his taxes, and he hasn’t been charged with criminal wrongdoing in the matter. He recently paid off his tax bills after county officials came to him, saying he needed to pay more.)
Last month, Port Aransas police looked into the possibility of commencing a criminal investigation after three city employees reported they heard a tax-annoyed mayor threaten to kill employees at the office of the Nueces County Tax Assessor-Collector. (The Port Aransas Police Department later decided there wasn’t enough evidence to warrant a formal investigation. Brown’s longtime friend, Nueces County Constable Bobby Sherwood, said the mayor’s comments were made out of frustration with the tax office and that his words were taken out of context.)
Brown is a bundle of contrasting images. A heavy equipment operator by trade, he is as comfortable seated behind the controls of a massive steel crane as he is in the mayor’s seat at Port Aransas City Hall, where he helps guide the destiny of one of the most dynamic small towns in Texas.
But his work as mayor of Port Aransas likely will not extend to a third term, he said.
Asked if he will run again, Brown said, “I very seriously doubt it. I don’t see myself running again. There is just a limit to what I can tolerate.”
He wouldn’t elaborate.
“If I go giving you reasons, that’s just going to create more friction, and I’m sick of it,” Brown said.
A life-long Port Aransan, Claude C. Brown was born 51 years ago, the son of Claude H. and Lucille Brown. His father earned a living in a variety of ways over the years. That included working cattle on Mustang Island, serving as a deputy constable and tending the grounds at Summer Place, the former Presbyterian church retreat on 12th Street. He also worked the toll gate at the ferry landing before it became a free service, and he was in the operation’s parts department. Brown’s mother worked at Summer Place and was employed as a grocery clerk at the now-defunct Port Aransas Mercantile, where Souvenir City is today. She also worked as a nurse.
Brown attended Port Aransas schools and graduated from Flour Bluff High School in 1977, three years before the modern-day Port Aransas High School was built and graduated its first class.
Brown studied diesel and hydraulic mechanics at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, then went into law enforcement, serving as an officer with the Port Aransas Police Department for about two years beginning in 1978, then as a Nueces County Constable’s deputy for about eight years. He said his time with the constable’s office ended due to what he called a “falling out” he had with then-Constable Dee Wayne Mathews, now deceased.
While in law enforcement, Brown also worked in haul-out services, doing boat repairs and maintenance. He bought a crane and started getting into building foundation work, welding, fabrication and other work. He devoted himself to that kind of work more fully after getting out of law enforcement.
Brown’s first city government post was as city councilman, a post to which he was elected in May 2002.
“I wanted to make a difference. I didn’t like the way things were being operated” in city government, he said.
“My big deal when I ran for council was streets and drainage work,” Brown said. “I just felt like there was always money to spend on new stuff but never money to maintain old stuff. I was discontented with the fact people’s houses were flooding, and the roads beat the wheels of your cars to drive down.”
After serving one term as councilman, Brown in 2004 ran unsuccessfully for mayor against Georgia Neblett. Two years later, he ran against her and won.
In 2008, Brown won re-election over challenger Charlie Zahn.
Brown said he didn’t advertise or promote himself in speeches during the race against Zahn, though some supporters may have put up Brown campaign signs that were left over from the previous mayoral election.
“I didn’t buy nobody beer or alcohol,” Brown said. “I didn’t stand on a corner and get sunburned. I ran on my reputation.”
Street and drainage work “was pretty much my sole goal, my intent when I got in politics,” Brown said. “If I have any kind of legacy, I hope they paint it on a drain tile, you know?”
A bond issue for drainage improvements was approved by voters in 2006. The same year, the city council approved paying for drainage, a new road and sidewalks on Oleander Street out of the city budget. The 2006 bond election included propositions similar to a bond election held in 2004, when voters rejected any street and drainage improvements.
In 2008, voters approved a $4.9 million bond issue for more street and drainage improvements.
Port Aransan Cherry Lee Cooper sees Brown as one of the main reasons so much street and drainage work is getting done in town. She said he has been a good mayor.
“He’s not pretentious,” Cooper said. “He takes care of the locals, those of us who have been here the longest. He is interested in those who come and visit, that they have a good time, but he tries to take care of those of us who are here, too. He tries to take care of our city.”
Brown said he is proud of the fact that he and then-councilman Bubba Jensen successfully fought to get a fuel tank installed several years ago at Mustang Beach Airport, where there was no fueling operation before. He said he believes having fuel available at the airport has brought more visitors to Port Aransas.
“It’s real simple. It’s hotel-motel taxes,” Brown said. “People fly in. They sleep somewhere. It’s more heads on beds, a bigger tax base for the city, so we could start improving and doing things.”
Brown also pushed to have the city council approve a measure to provide property tax freezes for people who are over 65 years of age.
The issue was sent to voters, who approved it, in September 2004.
“I don’t want to say it was because of me, but I initiated the process,” Brown said. “It’s a shame it had to be drug that far, but obviously, (approval) is what the people wanted.”
A blue collar worker, Brown has a strong core of supporters who seem him partly as a voice for ordinary Joes throughout Port Aransas.
Port Aransan Helen Jameson said she appealed to Brown when property neighboring her rental property on Oaks Street grew up high with weeds that had attracted snakes. Working through city hall, Brown quickly got the problem taken care of, and the lot was mowed, Jameson said.
“I judge a person by how he feels toward the town,” Jameson said. “Claude really cares about the town. He really cares about the people in the town. I really think he is very sincere about doing what is right for the people in town.”
During his first mayoral term, Brown started his First Monday program in which he meets with any citizen who cares to drop by his city hall office the first Monday of every month. Appointments are encouraged but not necessary.
Brown said he started the program because people were tired of trying without success to make their voices heard at city hall. He said people lined up at his door when the program first began. Response has tapered off some, but people still do drop by, he said.
Brown said he anchors his decisions as mayor in “practicality.”
“It’s about how things really happen in the real world,” Brown said. “I don’t sit under a fluorescent light all day in a closed box. I’m out and about. I try to use real-life situations and experiences to try to relate to how I make my decisions.
“When it’s flooding and raining, I’m not sitting in my house, staying dry,” Brown said. “I’m out, riding around and looking at where water is flowing and seeing how things are happening and where there are problems, so we can address them and cure those problems.”
Brown was among Port Aransas city officials who traveled to the state capitol this year to lobby against windstorm bills that would have hit Texas coastal residents hard in their pocketbooks. He drove the bus that hauled everyone to Austin.
Brown has about nine months left on his mayoral term. He said one of his top goals is to work with State Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, to help fix a system that results in what he said are absurdly high property appraisals on Port Aransas properties.
“My goal is to work with Todd to see what we can do to bring a more uniform appraisal from the Texas Comptroller’s Office,” Brown said, adding that he also would like to lobby the Legislature on the matter.
Criticisms of Brown have included that he has at times engaged in micromanagement of city operations. At a June 2007 council workshop, he asked about keys being left in city vehicles.
In August 2008, Sam Russell abruptly resigned as chief of PAPD, citing differences with Brown. Brown earlier had asked for an evaluation of the police department’s performance, saying he had received a number of complaints about the operation.
On the micromanagement question, Brown said he takes concerns to the city manager when he sees things that need to get done.
“If people thought I was micro-managing the city and not doing the right thing, they didn’t have to elect me,” Brown said. “I try to be the voice of the people and take people’s concerns and bring them forward and air those concerns.”
Brown has had words with people during council meetings. At a June 18 council meeting, he pointed and shouted at council member Glenda Balentine while the two sat next to each other during a council meeting. Brown accused Balentine of attacking him personally. Balentine denied it.
Also during a council meeting this year, Brown became testy with Port Aransas High School Principal Travis Longanecker when Longanecker questioned the mayor on comments he had made on the subject of alcohol and drug law enforcement in town.
Asked recently for comment about Brown, Longanecker said he likes Brown’s “populist stance” on issues. But the mayor needs to improve in other areas, the principal said.
“I think the jury is still out on what he’s doing for our town,” Longanecker said. “But what would really help him is for him to improve on his level of professionalism with people. Don’t make things so personal. Try to stick with the issues.”
Brown said it’s his manner that’s behind most of the criticism he faces.
“I’m pretty blunt about the things I say,” he said. “I don’t sugar coat everything. When I weigh things out and make my decisions, I try to make it for the good of the majority of people in this town. I know I’m not going to please everybody.”
Brown is “a little hard-headed,” Cooper said. “He puts up a little wall, and he doesn’t listen sometimes as carefully as he should. But, for the most part, he does, he really does. And he’s honest.”