Conroe, January 16 – Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District (LSGCD) Board President Webb Melder and Vice President Harry Hardman ran a pro-citizen meeting yesterday, January 15, 2019, in which citizens had the opportunity to speak and the Board ultimately took no action on hiring a taxpayer funded lobbyist. Additionally, the Board voted unanimously to terminate attorney Brian Sledge and the Sledge Law Firm as the general counsel of the LSGCD.
Several citizens attended the meeting to speak against the proposal LSGCD’s Board considered to issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a lobbyist to represent LSGCD during the 86th Legislative Session in Austin, which began on Tuesday, January 8.
As Kelli Cook, conservative Republican political activist, noted during her remarks during the meeting, “No man’s life, liberty, or property is safe when the Texas Legislature is in session.”
Cook explained that “anyone can learn to be a citizen lobbyist.” Cook’s specific objection to the proposal for LSGCD to hire a paid lobbyist was that the Board would be “turning around and outsourcing their duties.”
The gravamen of Cook’s comments were:
“Many of you made campaign promises like this…and I quote “I will ensure that the new board will work tirelessly to find as many ways as possible to bring back affordable water rates to the citizens of Montgomery County,’ ‘And I will earn the trust of my constituents and give them the confidence that I will do everything in my power to protect their private property rights, lower rates, and re-establish the credibility of the LSGCD.’
“The voters responded to those messages.
“But turning around and outsourcing your duties by hiring a lobbyist firm or a couple of lawyers from Austin does NOT demonstrate that you are committed to reform. Do you expect the residents of Montgomery County to believe an Austin based law firm or some other professional lobbyist will have their best interests at heart? From what I can tell, Lone Star Ground Water District has hired lobbyists for the last 12 years. I don’t see any evidence that that was in the best interests of the residents. If you choose to continue this habit, it will appear that you are comfortable with the status quo. You may be, but the residents are not!”
John Wertz, the elected Treasurer of the Montgomery County Republican Party, discussed the Republican Party Platform and its Plank 217, which calls for an end to taxpayer-funded lobbying.
Conservative activist Bob Bagley also objected to the proposal for the Board to hire a lobbyist. “You should lobby the state legislature for us as part of your jobs,” Bagley told the LSGCD Board.
Melder, the President of the Board (and former Mayor of Conroe), runs a very open format for his Board meetings in which he allows citizens to participate in discussions to a reasonable degree. After the citizens completed their comments, Melder asked each member of the Board to discuss the proposal to hire a lobbyist.
Larry Rogers, who represents the Woodlands Township, explained that all of the Board members were elected on a nonpartisan basis. Nevertheless, he said “the word lobbyist makes my ears turn red.” Rogers acknowledged that the Board and the citizens they represent need some sort of “watchdog” to follow what is happening in the Texas Legislature.
Stuart Traylor, who represents Commissioners Precinct 1 on the Board, agreed that LSGCD needed a “watchdog” but he also agreed that a “lobbyist has a bad connotation.”
Melder, the Board President, who represents the City of Conroe, explained that his experience with legislation, especially with two particular pieces of legislation that impacted LSGCD, has been that it’s necessary to have someone tracking legislation as it goes through amendments and changes in legislative committees, because “we need help tracking bills.” Melder mentioned two pieces of legislation in 2003 and 2015 which had surprise provisions in them that greatly impacted LSGCD and which were very different from the original intent of the draft bills.
Melder seemed open to the idea of a lower cost alternative than a lobbyist who would track legislation so that Board members and citizens could communicate concerns to legislators as legislative actions occurred in committees or on the floor of the House or Senate.
Hardman, the Board Vice President, whom the voters elected countywide as an At-Large Board member, expressed his concern that the Board members didn’t have legislative experience. “Everything we’ve don in the past two months to reform the District could be wiped out with the stroke of a pen with bad legislation that might pass,” Hardman said.
While Hardman was very complimentary of the state legislators who represent Montgomery County, he noted that they have limited ability to track all legislation about which their constituents might have an interest. “I’m not confident that our legislators have the bandwidth to be on top of every bill.”
Hardman said he was surprised by the “extraordinary coordinated effort over the last 72 hours” to convince the LSGCD Board not to hire a taxpayer-funded lobbyist. Hardman seemed to take the citizens’ concerns in stride and with good humor, however.
Jonathan Prykryl, who represents Commissioners Precinct 4, spoke briefly but effectively. “I’m wholeheartedly opposed to a taxpayer funded lobbyist or a watchdog. I don’t believe that Representative [Will] Metcalf or Senator [Brandon] Creighton are going to let us sink after they got us here.” Prykryl referred to Metcalf and Creighton, because they were the primary authors of the legislation during the 85th Legislature to make the LSGCD Board an elected one.
Precinct 3 representative Jon Bouche said “I’m against it entirely.” Bouche explained that State Representative Steve Toth had called him earlier in the day and advised that LSGCD needed to hire a lobbyist. Bouche said he had spoken with State Representative Valerie Swanson of Houston also who agreed with Toth. “We need someone to watch what’s happening in the Legislature, but I oppose us hiring a lobbyist.”
The ever practical Jim Spigener, representing Commissioners Precinct 2, said that “bills change from minute to minute…and we have to understand what’s going on.”
The Board then voted unanimously to terminate the attorney, Sledge. Then on the motion of Spigener, the Board voted to take no action on the hiring of a lobbyist.
Before the meeting adjourned, Rogers made a statement to the Board about future action he hopes the Board will take to save substantial funds for the taxpayers:
“I believe it is the responsibility of the Board of Directors of the Lone Star Groundwater Conservation District to evaluate each vendor contract to assure that Montgomery County residents are getting the best service for the best possible price to provide cost effective water with practical water conservation.
“With the United States Geological Survey Contract, (1) we need to evaluate to determine if this service is needed to supply data for the operation of the District, (2) if data is needed, then we must determine if the District needs enough data to fill up an eighteen-wheeler or is a pickup filled with data enough to get the information needed, (3) we need to determine if the USGS vendor is the best service for the best possible price or is a non-governmental agency the best.
“I believe that we need to have our Hydrologist or Engineer evaluate the above items and report back to us their findings.”
Rogers has shown his true colors as the “spending hawk” of the LSGCD Board.
The citizens did a wonderful job bringing their concerns to the attention of the Board and really seemed to have an impact, because, under Melder’s and Hardman’s transparent leadership, they’re revealing that they are genuinely elected servants who truly listen to their masters (the citizens).