Image: Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District candidates met for the first time in a public debate at the Woodlands Chamber of Commerce on Friday, October 5, 2018. Ten candidates participated in the debate. In this photograph, Jon Bouche (second from left), running for the position to represent Commissioners Precinct 3, said, “Everything’s fine until your water bill has a comma in it,” as Jim Spigener (far left) running for the position to represent Commissioners Precinct 2, Gregg Hope (second from right) running for the at-large Countywide position, and Harry Hardman (far right) running for the at-large Countywide position listened.
The Woodlands, October 7 – The Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District (LSGCD) candidates dripped off against each other for the first time in a candidate forum at the Woodlands Chamber of Commerce on Friday, October 5, 2018. While the debate was most quietly, there were some water works right at the end of the discussion when one candidate desperately attacked the entire group whom Restore Affordable Water (RAW), the citizens rights and private property rights group, has endorsed.
High prices for water bills were the hot water subject during the forum. “Everything’s fine until your water bill has a comma in it,” Commissioners Precinct 3 candidate Jon Bouche said. The restrictive regulations of LSGCD and LSGCD’s forcing water users to purchase expensive surface water from the San Jacinto River Authority, both of which have driven water prices into fountainous explosions, are the central issues in this campaign.
As one might expect from a candidate forum of the Woodlands Chamber of Commerce, the questioning sounded more like a high school civics class than any effort to gain insightful answers to distinguish one candidate from the other. Nevertheless, the candidates eventually departed from campaign platitudes and euphemisms towards the end.
Ten of the candidates attended the forum.
Stuart Traylor, who is running unopposed in Place 1, from Commissioners Precinct 1, didn’t attend.
Both Place 2 candidates, running to represent Commissioners Precinct 2, participated. Garry Oakley explained that he recently retired from 30 years of federal service as a civil and environmental engineer. Jim Spigener said he was in the chemical business for 20 years and then began to work as a consultant to “coach senior executives on strategic culture.” Spigener serves as his homeowners association president where he has heard numerous complaints from citizens about high water bills.
Jon Bouche was the only candidating running to represent Commissioners Precinct 3 who attended the forum. Bouche told the audience that he lives in Oak Ridge North, has a degree in law enforcement and police science, is Chairman of the Freedom & Liberty Political Action Committee which is a local grassroots reform group, is a Republican Precinct Chairman, and serves on the Montgomery County Republican Party Steering Committee.
Both Gregg Hope and Harry Hardman, who are running Countywide for an at-large position introduced themselves. Hope currently serves on the LSGCD Board and consistently votes for tighter groundwater regulations and to support the San Jacinto River Authority’s (SJRA) attempt to monopolize Montgomery County water sales. Hope said he worked for Consolidated Communications, a telephone utility company, and grew up in this community. Hardman moved to Montgomery County in 1998 with strong background in the telecommunications industry and 15 years of service on water utility districts. Hardman also serves on the Development Board of Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government.
None of the candidates running for the Commissioners Precinct 4 position attended the forum.
Both candidates running to represent the City of Conroe attended the forum. Jackie Chance, Jr., explained he’s been a “water operator all of my life.” Chance said he’s been in the wastewater treatment business for 58 years and was very open that the LSGCD establishment recruited him to run: “The District wanted me to run because they need a person who has experienced this problem on this Board.” Former Conroe Mayor Webb Melder, who graduated from Sam Houston State University with a Business degree, said he has spent the last nine years researching groundwater science and law.
All three Woodlands Township candidates participated. Larry Rogers, a former three-term Oak Ridge North City Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem said he’s been a resident of the Woodlands area since 1978 and has been actively involved in the Woodlands Chamber of Commerce, even serving as Chairman of the Roads and Transportation Committee in the past. Energy Gallagher said he lives in The Woodlands and has been in the water industry for 35 years including 27 years for the City of Houston. Kent Maggert explained he’s been a resident of The Woodlands for 42 years, is a retired Professional Engineer, and served on the MUD #36 Board for 12 years.
Maggert made clear his belief that he’s the only person in the room who understands just about everything. Maggert told the audience, “There’s a bunch of people running, because they think their water rates are controlled by the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District, and they’re not.” Less than six minutes later, however, Maggert argued against citizens suing LSGCD to stop regulations of groundwater use outside of the authority of the Texas Water Code, because “If they pursue lawsuits they can figure on an increase in their water bill.” It became unclear whether Maggert believes LSGCD’s actions have led to an increase or not in local water bills.
Of course, the central issue in this election is the fact that LSGCD’s severely restrictive groundwater regulations have forced municipalities, utility companies, and homeowners associations to purchase expensive surface water from the SJRA, which presently controls the LSGCD Board of Directors. Hardman explained the current Board of Directors, which includes Hardman’s opponent Hope who regularly votes with SJRA interests, “has significant conflicts of interest.”
Spigener was openly critical of LSGCD’s current Board, because “they need to look at science first rather than the way the existing Board has gone about this.” Bouche agreed and noted “citizens need to look at who ordered scientific studies and who published the results.”
Chance and Gallagher, who seem aligned with SJRA’s efforts to force local residents and businesses to buy surface water from the SJRA, both predicted that the recent ruling by a visiting Senior District Judge, Lamar McCorkle, that LSGCD’s regulations are inconsistent with Texas water law, “won’t hold up in court.” Both Chance and Gallagher, along with Hope, argued that more local regulations of groundwater are necessary, because, as Chance stated, “the waste of water is one of the biggest problems in the county.” Chance was very open that he supports efforts to shift water users to surface water: “we need more surface water.”
Melder, who currently sits on the LSGCD Board, but votes in favor of citizen and private property rights interests, explained, “The Texas Supreme Court has acknowledged that private property rights control groundwater rights…Groundwater conservation district don’t follow the law. The new Board will follow the law.”
All of the candidates stated that they support “transparency” although the pro-SJRA candidates seemed to try to argue that LSGCD shouldn’t spend money on educating citizens. Hardman said, “the first order of business after a new Board is elected will be to audit the financials of the district, because it’s been very opaque.”
Larry Rogers, who is running for the Woodlands Township, had specific suggestions how to increase LSGCD’s transparency to the citizens. “We need to educate the public, put all meetings on live stream video, and make sure the financials of the district are available online,” Rogers explained. Spigener agreed with the idea of putting Board meetings live online.
While Spigener, Hardman, Rogers, Melder, and Bouche argued for free market competition to cause water prices to decline, Hope said that his first goal, if elected, will be to implement groundwater well spacing regulations, which might increase water prices further.
Maggert brought a nasty tone to the forum when he asked the question whether the citizen rights, pro-property rights candidates, who are running on the Restore Affordable Water (RAW) slate of candidates, endorse unlimited groundwater withdrawals. None of them – Bouche, Spigener, Melder, Hardman, or Rogers – stated they were for unlimited groundwater withdrawals. Hardman noted, however, that the research study from Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government does not support restrictive groundwater regulations.
While Maggert tried to disavow the nasty tone to his question, Melder responded to him, “You made your purpose clear.”