Image: Conservative activist Ginger Russell, a year or two ago, contemplating her future discussions with her friend Precinct 2 County Commissioner Charlie Riley.
Conroe and Magnolia, October 10 – These news stories may be short, but they’re important nonetheless. All three stories highlight the ongoing battle between the Montgomery County political “establishment” and reform efforts underway to reduce spending of and instill some ethics into the Montgomery County government. The reformers face tough challenges.
Riley, Davenport file briefs in the “Trial of the 21st Century”: the Texas Open Meetings Act criminal case
Precinct 2 County Commissioner Charlie Riley and local political boss Marc Davenport, who is Riley’s former “consultant,” filed their briefs in the Beaumont Court of Appeals on Monday, October 2, 2017. Both Riley and Davenport are desperately seeking to set aside the Texas Open Meetings Act (“TOMA”) so that they are able to conduct County business in secret, as shining light on their machinations might impede their anti-citizen and pro-taxation efforts.
Davenport and Riley were indicted, along with County Judge Craig Doyal for allegedly violating Section 551.143 of TOMA which prohibits a member or group of members of a governmental body from knowingly conspiring to circumvent the open meetings requirement of TOMA by meeting in numbers less than a quorum for the purpose of secret deliberations. The prosecutors of the State of Texas have argued that Davenport and Riley violated TOMA when Riley and Doyal hired Davenport to conduct negotiations for the November 2015 road bond referendum for which Davenport held discussions on the specific terms of the road bond with Precinct 4 County Commissioner Jim Clark, Riley, and Doyal separately.
Davenport and his “client” JP James Metts claim that Davenport is a “sworn deputy” of the Precinct 4 Justice of the Peace.
Under federal and state constitutional law, the government may restrict the time, place and manner of political speech for a reasonable governmental purpose, such as openness in government, a basic policy of the State of Texas. That’s how the Commissioners Court can get away with restricting citizen comments to 3 minutes and permitting citizens to speak only during certain portions of the meetings.
Davenport and Riley both argued in separate briefs that Section 551.143 of TOMA is unconstitutional, even though it’s a time, place, and manner restriction, because, they argued in their briefs, that only people seeking to discuss issues before the governmental body fall under its restrictions. That argument is, of course, complete and utter nonsense.
Davenport and Riley also claim that they and ordinary reasonable people have to guess at the meaning of TOMA, so they want the Court of Appeals to determine it doesn’t apply to them.
It’s likely that the State of Texas will file one more reply brief in the next two weeks. The Court of Appeals will likely schedule the case for oral argument in early 2018.
GOP Chairman Wilkerson desperately avoids promoting Magnolia GOP Precinct Chair Ginger Russell to Area Chair position
Montgomery County Republican Party Chairman Walter D. Wilkerson, Jr., has a problem: he’s seeking loyalty over merit and, so far, hasn’t done a very good job in the effort. The problem began when Area Chair and Precinct Chair Kathleen Oates, who oversees the political work of the Magnolia area Republican Precinct Chairs, announced her retirement.
Russell, who is a outspoken conservative activist and highly-experienced GOP Precinct Chair herself, immediately applied to Wilkerson for the job. The written correspondence between Russell and Wilkerson is actually quite entertaining. First, Wilkerson indicated he’d on August 17, 2017, that he was too busy with a Republican Party fundraiser – that occurred this past weekend – to meet with Russell to discuss her interest in succeeding Oates as the Area Chair. Wilkerson, on August 16, also said, “Before that [the Area Chair appointment] could happen, we would have to have a serious conversation about your views about the Republican Party and your goals in this important position.”
Wilkerson has found himself severely outnumbered in County Republican Executive Committee meetings – where all of the Precinct Chairs meet together – because his political views are far more liberal than the overwhelming number of Precinct Chairs in the Republican Party. At the last Executive Committee meeting, Wilkerson attempted to adjourn the meeting before Precinct Chairman Paul Gebolys, a conservative from The Woodlands, could propose a resolution calling for a citizen vote before the County proceeds with financing or construction of tollroads, such as the $73 million, 3.6 mile, Tx-249 Tollway which Doyal and Riley are attempting to foist on Montgomery County citizens. After the Precinct Chairs and Wilkerson’s own Party Secretary overruled his precipitous attempt to end the meeting, the Precinct Chairs voted 34 to 1 to adopt the anti-tollroads resolution.
As Wilkerson requested, Russell didn’t contact him again until after the Party fundraiser concluded this past weekend. When Russell did contact Wilkerson after the fundraiser was over, Wilkerson informed Russell that there is no vacancy in the Area Chair position at all! Russell responded, “Wally, your response regarding the area chair and there is no vacancy is a bit shocking. Do you recall our email exchange below?”
Wilkerson responded by inviting Russell to “visit” with him “about any topic” in an email on Sunday, October 8.
Therefore, on Monday, October 9, Russell drove to Conroe and brought her husband, Calvin Russell, along for the meeting with Wilkerson. Wilkerson claimed that there is no vacancy, even though Oates has retired. Wilkerson claims that, when he said there is a vacancy two months ago, he “was in error.”
Interestingly, Wilkerson and the Russells moved on to a conversation about Joe Straus, Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. Straus claims to be a Republican. Republicans have 99 out of 150 seats in the Texas House. Straus blocked property tax reform during the 85th Texas Legislative Session. Democrats have successfully sponsored more enacted legislation under Straus than Republicans.
The Montgomery County Republican Party Executive Committee has overwhelmingly condemned Straus and called for his replacement by resolution. Wilkerson opposed that resolution as well.
During the conversation with the Russells, Wilkerson staunchly defended Straus. Wilkerson noted to the Russells that “I served with his mother on the State Republican Executive Committee…Joe Straus spent years working in Washington…I think he gets a bum rap…He was elected under unusual circumstances…Just because he doesn’t agree with the ‘bathroom bill’ is why we’re going to remove him is a bit too much.”
Wilkerson also mentioned that he condones Joe Straus making political contributions to Democrats. Wilkerson later said, “Well, I imagine he [Straus] may have done that…”
Westwood Magnolia Parkway Improvement District’s interesting wheeling and dealing
The same Ginger Russell obtained an interesting cache of documents by Open Records Act request from the tiny Westwood Magnolia Parkway Improvement District (WMPID).
WMPID collects $3.6 million per year in sales taxes mostly from businesses located at or near the intersection of F.M. 1488 and F.M. 2978. It’s a classically-gerrymandered district whose odd shape reflects the desire of Regency Centers, which owns the commercial center leasing to Target and TJ Maxx among several other businesses, to develop a taxing improvement district within its control. The gerrymandered district’s voters are essentially the WMPID Board of Directors and a few individuals who live near the commercial properties.
Of $3.6 million of sales tax revenue, WMPID pays approximately half to the City of Conroe and $700,000 in debt service for road projects which WMPID has sponsored in order to bring traffic to its commercial areas.
WMPID pays its part-time Consultant Rob Eissler, the former state representative who provides lobbying services for numerous local taxing authorities, $96,000 per year. WMPID paid an additional $19,666.03 to furnish Eisler’s office.
WMPID also pays $80,000 per year to its attorney who is none other than Rich Muller of Sugar Land, the same attorney who represents Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal and Precinct 2 County Commissioner Charlie Riley in their effort to foist a $73 million, 3.6-mile, Tx-249 Tollway at the far southwest edge of Montgomery County.
After other expenses, including the payment of fees to its four Board of Directors members, WMPID still enjoys more than $525,000 per year as an operating surplus.
There’s a lot more taxation to come from this governmental entity under the direct control of a small number of businesses who have chosen to tax the public without affording any opportunity for representation through local elections.