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April 10th, 2019:

Interview with Nabila Mansoor

Nabila Mansoor

Another city having its municipal elections next month is Sugar Land in Fort Bend County. Fort Bend was one of the epicenters of the emerging Democratic majority in Texas suburban counties, as Dems swept the countywide races there last year. Carrying that momentum over will be the next test for that coalition, in places like Sugar Land that have diverse populations but not especially diverse city governments. Nabila Mansoor is picking up that challenge in District 2, where the current Council member is term-limited. Mansoor is an attorney and longtime activist who has worked in organizations such as Emgage USA, where she is the past Texas Executive Director and current Census Director for the Empowering Communities Initiative. She is also one of the co-leads of the Houston circles of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. Here’s what we talked about:

I don’t have any other May candidate interviews planned at this time. Sometimes things change after I make public statements like that. Be that as it may, look for November candidate interviews beginning in July.

Using floodplain rules to force environmental safety compliance

A county’s gotta do what a county’s gotta do.

Harris County officials are using flood control regulations passed after Hurricane Harvey to delay the reopening of two chemical companies where fires erupted in recent weeks, killing one worker and sending large plumes of black smoke into the Houston area.

The Harris County Attorney’s office cited the post-Harvey rules on floodplain construction and stormwater drainage in its civil lawsuits against KMCO and Intercontinental Terminals Co., where cleanup is still ongoing after the fires.

“We don’t shy away from going after the biggest, baddest companies out there,” said Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan. “It sends a message to everyone.”

The county is digging through maps and available data to determine if both companies are in a floodplain. The new regulations put chemical facilities that are in a 500-year floodplain under tighter scrutiny.

The drainage rules restrict discharges of hazardous materials into the county’s stormwater system. If a company is found to have discharged hazardous materials, it can be cited by the county. Larger releases could lead to additional legal action.

The floodplain rules apply to more than facilities with fires and toxic releases and can force companies to meet new requirements when seeking to expand or change an existing facility, said Rock Owens, managing attorney for the Harris County Attorney’s environmental section.

The story doesn’t go into detail about what compliance issues there are and how long they may take to resolve. You may be thinking “why doesn’t the county file a lawsuit against these companies to force them to fix their problems?” The answer is that this used to be how things went, but your Texas legislature has taken steps to shackle counties and their enforcement efforts.

But in 2015, the state Legislature started taking away authority from the local governments. Lawmakers approved a bill capping the amount of money a local government could receive from civil penalties sought in environmental cases.

In 2017, another bill passed forcing local authorities to ask permission from the Texas attorney general before seeking penalties. If the attorney general’s office does not file its own suit in 90 days, the local government can go forward with a civil suit.

Lawmakers are currently considering two bills that would restrict local governments even more.

House Bill 3981, filed by state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, would give the attorney general the authority to settle lawsuits started by the county, without the approval of the county.

House bill 2826, filed by state Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood and three others, would let the attorney general prohibit the county from hiring outside attorneys on cases.

“The concern isn’t that the local governments are intentionally causing any problems with these suits, just that a more efficient state-led effort may at times be more desirable,” said Justin Till, Bonnen’s chief of staff.

More desirable for the polluters, that’s for sure. Let’s be very clear, the main reason why bills like these get passed are specifically to muzzle Harris County’s enforcement efforts. (The city of Houston’s efforts were killed by the Supreme Court.) It’s a pollution-friendly Republican Legislature taking care of bad actors, aided and abetted by the business lobby. You know what I’m going to say next: Nothing will change until we change who we elect.

The Orbit lawsuit

Now here‘s an interesting case.

A Montgomery County woman has filed suit against the Astros, alleging she suffered a broken finger when her left hand was struck by a T-shirt fired from an air-powered cannon wielded by Orbit, the ballclub’s costumed mascot, at an Astros game last July.

Plaintiff Jennifer Harughty seeks damages in excess of $1 million from the Astros in the suit, which was assigned to 157th state District Court Judge Tanya Garrison.

The lawsuit, filed by Houston attorneys Jason Gibson and Casey Gibson, says Harughty has required two operations to repair damage to her left index finger, which was shattered when her hand was struck by a T-shirt fired from the Orbit character’s “bazooka-style” air cannon during the seventh inning of an Astros game July 8, 2018, at Minute Maid Park.

Harughty, 35, of Montgomery, who works as a real estate broker, said her finger remains locked in an extended position with little to no range of motion and that she continues to suffer discomfort from the injury, the lawsuit said.

Jason Gibson said the lawsuit was filed only after the Astros refused to pay Harughty’s medical bills associated with the injury.

“Nothing was going to be done,” the attorney said. “We were directed to the general counsel, and he basically said ‘file your lawsuit.’ He asked for it, and he got it. We were hoping to get this resolved, but that didn’t happen.”

The suit said Harughty was struck on the palm side of her left hand and required treatment at an emergency room after the game. She required surgery four days later to insert two screws into the injured finger and a second operation in October to remove the screws and attempt to restore range of motion to the finger.

Major League Baseball tickets include what has become known as the “baseball rule,” which states that a ticket holder “assumes all risk and danger incidental to the baseball game, and all other activities, promotions or events at the Ballpark before, during and after the baseball game, including, but not limited to, the danger of being injured by baseballs, equipment, objects or persons entering spectator areas.”

That stipulation, which is included on the Astros’ website under season ticket policies, says that by attending a game, the ticket holder releases the Astros and Major League Baseball from liability for “injuries or loss of personal property resulting from all risk and danger incidental to the baseball game and the risks or any incidents associated with crowds of people.”

Gibson said he is acquainted with Astros owner Jim Crane and with members of the Astros’ ownership group and that “everyone loves the Astros.” However, he said he did not believe that the liability waiver covers cases such as Harughty’s.

“That’s not the type of risk you assume going to a baseball game, although they may take that position,” Gibson said. “Ours will be that you don’t assume the risk of having someone fire a cannon at you that creates that much force at that proximity that can cause that kind of damage.”

A copy of the lawsuit is embedded in the story. Let me remind everyone that I Am Not A Lawyer, so what I say is simply the speculation of a layman. I find myself rather sympathetic to the plaintiff’s arguments. T-shirt cannons, as fun as they are, are totally the team’s decision to use, and not an inherent risk of attending the game as they are a recent innovation. I mean, no one was hurling things into the crowd when I was attending Yankees games back in the 70s and 80s. (Things may have occasionally been hurled out from the crowd, but that’s another story.) People understand that a batted ball may be coming their way and they need to pay attention when the game is in progress. But mascots like Orbit do their thing in between innings, when you’d think it’s safe to check your phone. And by the way, teams have been putting up more netting around the lower decks of the stadiums, to better protect people from those increasingly hard-hit balls. If teams are willing to mitigate those risks, it’s not unreasonable to think they might mitigate a non-game risk like a projectile fired at high velocity from a T-shirt cannon. My advice, for all that it’s worth, is to offer to settle the suit for the woman’s medical costs and a bit more, and to take a closer look at how those T-shirt cannons are being operated. Why make a bigger deal out of this than necessary?