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Woodlands Township

More fire department sexual harassment allegations

Welcome to the Woodlands.

When she began her job at the fire department of The Woodlands Township in July 2013, Julie Thomas believed her skin was sufficiently thick to endure a work environment dominated almost entirely by “men with big egos.”

But Thomas, hired as a customer service representative when she was 22, said she soon felt overwhelmed as she became the target of sexually charged comments, jokes and explicit sexual propositions, allegations she detailed in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against the township last month in a Houston federal court.

The lawsuit against The Woodlands Township alleges that Thomas was subjected to sexual harassment in a hostile work environment where four women work with more than 100 men. When she complained to a supervisor and to the Human Resources office, she contends she was fired in retaliation.

[…]

The lawsuit against The Woodlands Township describes the fire department there as an “old-boys club or a fraternity house, ” where members “created a severe and pervasive hostile work environment based on sex.”

The harassment escalated in 2015 after Thomas began a weight loss regime, her suit says.

In one incident, according to the lawsuit, Thomas said Battalion Chief Jason Washington told her that she was “looking good these days” and suggested that they could have sex. The chief assured Thomas that her husband, firefighter Josh Thomas, could be kept in the dark.

“Come on Julie, Josh doesn’t have to know,” said Washington, according to suit.

In another incident, the lawsuit describes that Lt. Thomas Richardson “came up to Mrs. Thomas and made sound effects that mimicked a motorboat noise, which is frequently associated with placing one’s lips on a woman’s breasts, and said ‘Oh girl, the things I can do to you.’”

Thomas alleged she reported the incidents to her supervisor and the HR office, but no action was taken.

The Woodlands Township and its Fire Department deny the allegations, of course. I have no insight as to what may or may not have happened in this particular case, but I will say three things. One, no one should be surprised when allegations like this arise, because this has been and still is happening literally everywhere. Two, even if one it taken aback by an individual incident, no one should be surprised when more women come forward to bolster the original accusations now that the barrier of silence has been broken. And three, if you’re tired of hearing about this stuff and wish it would all just stop, remember that the way for it to stop is for there to be no tolerance for harassment. Don’t harass, and don’t defend or ally yourself with those who do, and we will begin to see a real decline in these incidents. We all need to do our part.

Montgomery County officials indicted over road bond shenanigans

I know I’m a bad person, but this continues to amuse me greatly.

A grand jury has indicted Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal and two commissioners, charging them with violating Texas’ open meetings law last year while developing a bond package for new and improved roads.

Traffic-weary voters in the rapidly growing county approved the $280 million financing proposal, but the indictments left Doyal and Commissioners Jim Clark and Charlie Riley to face criminal charges for their actions in getting it on the ballot.

Grand jurors also charged Marc Davenport, an adviser who helped to broker a deal on the bond proposal. He is married to the county’s treasurer, Stephanne Davenport.

Chris Downey, the special prosecutor who presented the case to the grand jury over six months, said that the misdemeanor charges are punishable by a fine up to $500, as many as six months in jail or both.

Downey said that it’s too early to know whether the case will go to trial.

“Like any criminal matter, whether or not a matter goes to trial is going to be a function of further discovery and negotiation,” he said.

See here for the background. The charges are fairly small potatoes, and I’ll be very surprised if they result in any kind of guilty verdict. I just find it all hilarious. The next time anyone tries to tell you that the suburbs are so much better at running things than the big cities, point to this and remind them that we can generally get bond measures on the ballot without anyone getting indicted.

The struggle is real in The Woodlands

One last opportunity – for this year, at least – to mock the flailing efforts at self-governance in Montgomery County.

[Bruce] Tough believes the tea partiers are after “control’ and, in so doing, could stamp out independent thought.

“I don’t want to see any single group control the fate of our community,” Long said. “We’re bigger than one group. All the folks who live here should have a say.”

Mike Bass, a township director who was opposed in 2012 by tea partiers who had once backed him, agreed.

“They want to win control of the township board and then have us incorporate our township into a city,’ Bass said. “We have a perfect limited government and free marketplace now. But they really don’t want that.”

Community leaders agree on one thing: resident frustration over the area’s rapid growth is driving the discontent. Montgomery County’s population, now a half million, is expected to double over the next half-century.

“The Woodlands is a victim of its own success,” said Tough. “Once people build a house here, they want that one to be the last one built. I heard these special interest people saying, ‘Elect me and I’ll stop development.’ It may play well politically, but legally you can’t tell someone what to do with their land.”

The Texas Patriots’ Turner said that while nobody can stop growth, it could be better managed, possibly through incorporating as a city.

Bass said incorporation was put off three years ago because a study then showed it would triple the property tax rate.

So basically, The Woodlands is like Austin, though perhaps with fewer skinny-jeans-wearing hipsters. And the first-time candidate who defeated Bruce Tough last Tuesday is on a self-appointed mission to rescue America from the clutches of evil leftists, presumably beginning with those Alinsky sympathizers on the Woodlands Township Board of Directors. I’m sorry, but Houston politics just can’t hold a candle to this for sheer ridiculousness.

The Woodlands versus its neighbors

I have three things to say about this.

The Woodlands prides itself on being the best-planned community around, with tree-studded neighborhoods, miles of trails, sprawling parks and a town center with a distinctly urban feel.

Across Montgomery County, however, some see The Woodlands as a snooty, well-off enclave that grouses about its tax dollars subsidizing services elsewhere.

Unfair or not, those hard feelings are coming into view as the county nears a Nov. 3 vote on whether to invest in new and improved roadways. The $280 million bond measure is a slimmed-down version of one that failed four months ago amid heavy opposition in The Woodlands.

After urging county leaders to try again on the coming ballot, the township’s governing board has come out against the revised bond measure, saying that the package is tainted because it was put together in negotiations outside public view.

A special prosecutor is investigating whether the county’s dealings broke the state’s open meetings law. Even then, some local officials and residents are upset by The Woodlands’ hasty turnaround.

“You can’t overcome the fact that we still need the roads,” said Alan Sadler, who recently retired after 24 years as Montgomery County’s judge. “It’s dire. If we wait another year, we won’t have the roads built until 2020, 2021 or 2022. We can’t wait that long.”

The Woodlands board’s opposition to the measure before the investigation is complete has widened a divide between township and county leaders. Sadler, among others, was irked by the township’s sudden decision last year to pull out of a deal to help pay for a new customs facility at Montgomery County’s airport. Township leaders complained about a lack of responsiveness from county leaders.

And in May, voters in The Woodlands rallied to defeat the initial road bond because it included a controversial extension of Woodlands Parkway west of the master-planned community, a project that critics said would worsen traffic woes. Forty percent of the voters in the countywide election came from its largest community, and they opposed it by a 9-1 margin.

Penny Benbow, who resides in southeast Montgomery County, said voters outside The Woodlands listened to its concerns, and many rejected the bond measure, too. But the parkway extension isn’t part of the new bond package, and it’s time for the town to support it, she said.

“We can’t do it without you,” Benbow told the township’s governing board last week. “Your neighbors stood by you in May. Now it’s time for you to stand by your neighbors.”

See here and here for the background. I know I’m a horrible person for saying this, but I find this whole saga to be hilarious. This sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen in the suburbs! You guys should be setting a good example for those benighted city residents! Stop fighting before you make Joel Kotkin cry!

Bruce Tough, the board’s chairman, bristles at the suggestion that The Woodlands isn’t a good neighbor. He noted that the township has supported the Conroe Independent School District’s bond measures and pays “the lion’s share” of taxes in the county.

Of course The Woodlands pays the lion’s share of the property taxes in the county. That would be because the Woodlands has the lion’s share of the property value in the county. If the Woodlands would like for its share of the property taxes to be lower, they’ll need for the rest of the county to be built up more. I don’t know what share of Harris County’s property taxes Houston pays, but I’ll bet it used to be more back when more of Harris County was uninhabited or undeveloped.

The highest priority is Rayford Road, an artery that has become a backed-up pool of frustration for the unincorporated neighborhoods east of The Woodlands. Plans call for widening the road to as many as six lanes and building an overpass over railroad tracks.

“The Woodlands has a good road grid,” said Thomas Gray, a planner for the area council. “The east side doesn’t, so that’s why they’re experiencing the problems they have right now.”

I predict that regardless of what happens with this particular bond issue, the problems won’t go away. In fact, I’d bet the projects that the bond would provide for give little more than temporary relief. This is partly because of the fast growth in Montgomery County – there’s only so much you can do when that many people are moving in – but it’s also partly by design. You pretty much have to drive everywhere in Montgomery County, and that’s not going to change. There are plenty of places you can live in Houston and do a minimal amount of driving. Until that becomes the case in Montgomery County, they’re going to have to keep paving to try to keep up. Good luck with that.

No way to run a road bond election

Am I a bad person for being unreasonably amused by this?

A special prosecutor has been assigned to determine whether behind-the-scenes negotiations could void a last-minute deal struck by Montgomery County commissioners to get a scaled-back $270 million road bond package on the upcoming November ballot.

At question is whether some commissioners and a powerful tea party group violated the open meetings law. It would mark the third defeat of a road bond proposal in the past decade, with the last one coming four months ago when voters rejected a 20 percent larger bond proposal.

“We’re going to aggressively inquire into all communications and activities that led up to commissioners putting this latest bond proposal on the ballot,” said Chris Downey, the Houston attorney appointed as special prosecutor. “We need to move quickly to determine if anything criminal was done before the Nov. 3 election is held. It could be voidable.”

A Texas Ranger has been ordered to gather emails, phone records and statements from those involved in the negotiations. Downey will then use the information to determine whether a quorum of elected officials intentionally held secret deliberations with the Texas Patriots PAC tea party that decided upon the bond proposal.

County Judge Craig Doyal and Commissioner Charlie Riley have acknowledged meeting with the tea party group, but that doesn’t represent a quorum of the five-member court. However, if emails or phones were used to include other commissioners in the decision process, it could become a “walking quorum,” which violates the law.

“This can be a way for officials to avoid open discussions in a public venue. Under the law, the public is to be notified of when and where a meeting is held so that anyone can attend,” said Dan Bevarly, interim executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. “It sounds like elected officials in this case might later come together in public only to rubber-stamp decisions made earlier in private.”

On Thursday night, The Woodlands Township Board voted unanimously to withdraw support given to the November bond package in light of the investigation.

“It stinks. It’s a back-room deal that lacks transparency,” said Township Chairman Bruce Tough. “A special interest group (Texas Patriot PAC) is dictating terms of the road bond to the county. They are not elected to represent us.”

See here and here for some background. I haven’t followed the details of Montgomery County’s efforts to get another road bond on the ballot, and I don’t have anything constructive to say. I’m just laughing at the comedy of errors going on here. For a region that has so much growth and projected growth, they sure have a hard time governing themselves. You have to wonder if this inability to do anything will eventually hinder all that growth they’re supposed to have.

And then there’s this:

The Texas Patriot PAC issued a written statement: “All private citizens have a right to petition people they elected to serve them. Meeting with two commissioners is not a violation of the open meetings laws. Any suggestion that these meetings violated such laws is entirely without merit.”

Because of the fast-approaching deadline to get a bond proposal on the ballot, the organization said there was insufficient time for more input from residents.

“Throughout this process, we thought of ourselves as representatives of all the conservative citizen groups. The framework ultimately agreed to was representative of what all the groups had been proposing since (the last bond defeat),” the statement said.

However, Duane Ham, who had served on the committee that supported the last failed bond proposal, disagreed. He recently formed the Texas Conservative Tea Party Coalition that the Patriot PAC called the “fake tea party.” “It’s sad when a few are controlling and dictating what happens in our county instead of our people.”

I’m not the only one who thought of this, am I?

I don’t know what this world is coming to when tea party groups start turning on each other.

Montgomery County tries to figure out what it wants

Can they ever pass a road bond?

Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal says he will hold community meetings to assess what direction the county should go to improve mobility after a $350 million road bond package was defeated by county voters this month.

The measure to finance 77 projects was defeated May 9 amid strong opposition to a controversial proposal to extend Woodlands Parkway to the west. About 56 percent of those who cast ballots opposed the proposal.

Voters in the The Woodlands’ precinct soundly rejected the plan, although it passed, sometimes by a narrow margin, in the other three precincts.

Doyal and other county commissioners plan to meet Tuesday to canvass the 28,400 voters, which is twice the number that went to the polls in the last road bond election.

“I want to find out exactly what the people want,” said Doyal, following a cursory review of the election returns.

Voters from The Woodlands turned out in the largest numbers, making up 40 percent of all who voted. More than four out of five Woodlands voters opposed the bond proposal.

The next-largest turnout occurred farther north in Montgomery, where residents cast 17 percent of the ballots. Nearly two out of three voters there favored the package.

“We have to have a bond issue, but I do not want to go out again until I’m convinced we have full support – strong support – county-wide,” Doyal said. “I’m not sure when that can be done.”

See here for the background. With the caveat that I have not looked at any precinct data for this election, I’d say the issue here is not one of finding full support for a bond referendum, it’s of finding support from The Woodlands. Flip things around so that you had a bond that they loved but everyone else hated, and it would have passed. Of course, then three out of four County Commissioners would have opposed it, so it never would have made it to the ballot. How they square this circle, I have no idea, and as someone who sets foot (or tire) in Montgomery County maybe twice a year, I don’t have much at stake in it. But thinking about their bond failures, and the reasons why this particular referendum tanked, led me to the following thought: It is often said that the reason why many people support mass transit is because they hope other people will take it, thus freeing up space on the roads for themselves. I think something similar was at play here, where the “No” voters in the Woodlands only want new roads built that keep people out of their neighborhoods. Good luck figuring it out, y’all.

Montgomery County rejects its road bonds

One more election result of interest.

In a hard-fought election, Montgomery County voters went to the polls in record numbers to cast ballots that ultimately defeated the $350 million in proposed road bonds.

Nearly 58 percent of the more than 28,700 voters opposed the bonds that included the controversial extension of Woodlands Parkway that critics said would channel 6,000 additional motorists daily into the heart of this master-planned community and ruin its hometown ambiance.

This marks the second defeat of a road bond proposal in the last decade. In 2011, voters rejected a $200 million proposal that opponents said lacked a specific list of projects. The last bond proposal approved was $100 million in 2005.

[…]

This bond defeat sends county commissioners scrambling back to the drawing boards to find a bond proposal that voters in one of the fastest-growing counties in the state can support. Traffic back-ups are only expected to worsen as the county’s population of a half-million is soon projected to outstrip all surrounding suburbs. Experts forecast the population will increase by 108,000 – equivalent to a community the size of The Woodlands – in just the next five years and then surge to over 2 million by 2035.

However, bond opponents such as Bunch and Texas Patriots PAC president Julie Turner believe commissioners can do a better job setting priorities for road improvements. They want them to eliminate some of the 77 proposed road projects like the Parkway extension and road repairs that they believe should be covered by the regular county budget and not done with borrowed bond money paid back over 30 years.

But bond supporters like Blair say the likelihood of commissioners coming back with a new revised bond proposal for November after two defeats is “very slim.” “Voters have shown they don’t want it. It makes me sad because we’ve gone a decade without any road bonds and the traffic is only getting worse,” she said.

Bunch, the lone member of the 11-member road bond committee to oppose the bond proposal, admitted County Judge Craig Doyal and others had threatened to significantly cut the amount of bond money allocated for The Woodlands in any revised bond package as they did not want to reward the opposition. The failed bond package had included $105 million for road improvements in the precinct that includes The Woodlands – 30 percent more than the other three precincts. The other three were to have received between $80 and $85 million each.

“I think that was a lot of pre-election posturing,” said Bunch.”They are going to get over it. They’re going to listen to the voters and make needed changes, They said we were a small group of loud people. But we’re no longer the silent majority. They need to listen to the people. We demand they put a bond proposal back on the ballot in November.”

Commissioner James Noack, who supported the bond package but was the lone commissioner opposing the Parkway extension, said this election “woke a sleeping giant” and the rest of commissioners court should listen,

Steve Toth, a former Texas representative opposing the bonds, said commissioners shuld take the $22 million allocated for extending Woodlands Parkway for six miles to Texas 249 and use to improve roads that really need it now. He wants the money applied to improvements on FM 1488 and others, rather on roads that go through areas where nobody now lives.

Meanwhile, several county commissioners, such as Jim Clark and Charlie Riley, said they weren’t likely to put a road bond proposal on the November ballot because there would already be a large school bond proposal from Conroe ISD on that ballot.

Commissioner Riley has also vowed to keep the extension project in any new revised bond proposal. “Nothing would be different,” said Riley, whose precinct includes the territory where the extension would be built. He said that he believes that he has the backing of other commissioners.

“I think this looks like another long year with no traffic improvements,” said Bruce Tough, who chairs The Woodlands Township. “Some of these groups are against government. But they demand more services and want taxes lowered at the same time.” The Township was split on the issue with three commissioners supporting the bond package, three others against and one taking no position.

There was a pre-election story that covered a lot of the same ground in this article. I have no position on the merits of this bond and didn’t follow the debate at all. I’m just amused by it all. We hear all the time about how we need to spend money to meet the transportation needs of fast-growth suburbs like Montgomery when the people who live there can’t agree on what those needs are themselves. Maybe the fourth time will be the charm, Montgomery. Good luck with that.

Montgomery County really wants an I-45 option for the high speed rail line

They’re not fooling around.

Montgomery County commissioners have unanimously adopted a strongly worded resolution criticizing any effort to run a high-speed train between Houston and Dallas through the western side of the fast-growing county.

Instead, commissioners believe the right track for such a bullet train to take would be down the Interstate 45 corridor, where road congestion is steadily worsening. The Woodlands Township wrote a letter a few weeks earlier expressing the same sentiment.

“There was support for the I-45 corridor and we thought this was initially where they planned to put it. It was to possibly make stops in Conroe or The Woodlands. The discarding of this route was a real slap in the face,” Montgomery County Judge Alan Sadler said after commissioners met Monday. “There is no upside for the new route that goes through the county’s west side. It will just disrupt a lot of people’s lives in the part of the county with the highest potential for development.”

Commissioner Craig Doyal echoed that sentiment. “I think high-speed rail is a good idea. But with no planned stops here, all this proposed route will do is divide the county.”

[…]

One problem with the I-45 corridor is that it has several entrances and exits for food establishments, hotels and other businesses that would have to be navigated, while the utility corridor has none and the BNSF route has only a few, officials said. Also, curves along the I-45 corridor would have to be straightened to accommodate a train speeding down a track at 200 mph, which could prove costly.

In objecting to the BNSF route, county commissioners complained in their resolution that it could force the closure or rerouting of local roads, block access to private properties and increase commuter drive times. Emergency vehicles also could lose critical time if forced to travel longer distances, and such a high-speed train could be hazardous because it requires 8.5 miles to come to a complete stop.

“Listening to the whizzing vibrations every 15 minutes would also be annoying,” the resolution stated.

But possibly the most important issue – though not mentioned in the resolution – is that Montgomery County will gain nothing but inconvenience from this train crossing its territory.

See here and here for the background. Certainly having the high speed rail line pass through the Woodlands would at least allow for the option of a station there that would surely draw a lot of business. The problem is that building something like a high speed rail line through an established and growing area like that is far more complicated, and ultimately expensive, than building it in more out of the way areas. That has its own problems, one of them being that one of the preferred alternate routes also goes through Montgomery County, and the powers that be there are doing what they can to put up obstacles for that. The other preferred route avoids Montgomery altogether, but there are issues with that as well. There are no problem-free solutions, is what I’m saying.

Really, this is another illustration of the fact that the best time to build a major piece of infrastructure is always in the past. Think how much easier it would have been to construct the light rail system Houston approved in 2003 if we had gotten started on it back in 1991, when we were debating a monorail system. We can’t go back in time, but my point is that if we don’t move forward on stuff like this now, it won’t get any easier to do twenty or thirty years down the line. I don’t know what the right answer is, but if the most expedient choice from a political perspective is the I-45 corridor, then the question becomes how to make that financially feasible. Maybe at some point this private enterprise needs to have a public component to it as well. Like I said, I don’t know what the right answer is. I just know that it doesn’t get any easier from here, and if we miss this chance we may never get another one.

The Woodlands wants to be on the high speed rail route

Can’t blame ’em.

The Woodlands Township is urging federal and state officials to take another look at the potential benefits of adding a high-speed rail corridor along Interstate 45.

Last month, the Federal Railway Administration and the Texas Department of Transportation revealed two potential routes for a proposed bullet train that could one day connect Dallas and Houston by rail, but neither of the routes under review would come down I-45 in fast-growing Montgomery County.

Miles McKinney, legislative affairs and transportation manager for The Woodlands, said there is still time for it and surrounding communities to have some influence on the direction of the project.

“We’ve taken and written a letter asking them to reinstate the I-45 corridor for consideration and to think about it one more time and at least assess it before condemning it,” he said.

State and federal transportation officials recently narrowed the list of potential routes from nine to two. The excluded lines seemed a bit longer, which could prove more costly for a project that already has a price tag of more than $10 billion.

The route that local leaders wants transportation officials to explore is referred to as the Green Field Route. It would begin in Dallas and travel along I-45, passing through Huntsville and Montgomery County before ending in downtown Houston.

The interstate highway runs the length of Montgomery County, whose population is projected to increase from 500,000 to 1.1 million by 2040.

Given the growth of the area, McKinney said, it may be wise to ask transportation officials leading the project to consider adding a rail station north of Houston, near the Grand Parkway and The Woodlands.

See here for the background, and click the embedded image to see all of the proposed routes. I can’t argue with the logic, and in fact in past conversations I’ve had with the Texas Central Railway folks, I myself have suggested that a Woodlands-area station might make sense for them. The two “recommended” routes were chosen because they were the lowest cost, which is a non-trivial consideration in a $10 billion project. A big complicating factor is how routing the trains along I-45 might effect the cost and feasibility of bringing the trains to downtown Houston, where the terminal ought to be and is most likely to be. One possible route into downtown involves the same corridor as a proposed commuter rail line along 290, which obviously isn’t compatible with a Woodlands-friendly location. I don’t know what the best answer is, and unfortunately not everyone can be accommodated. Good luck figuring it all out.

By the way, the Central Japan Railway Company, one of the backers of Texas Central Railway, recently began test runs of a maglev train that can reach 300 miles per hour. By the time this line is finished, it could provide an even quicker ride between Dallas and Houston. Yeah, I’m excited by the prospect.

Welcome to the not-quite-a-city of The Woodlands

On January 1, a unique experiment in city-like governance will commence in The Woodlands.

A new government body, approved by residents two years ago and called The Woodlands Township, will take control of the Montgomery County community 30 miles north of Houston.

“We’re transitioning from community associations that predominately provided services to a central government unit,” said Don Norrell, serving in the new role as president of the Township. “The key is centralized government.”

The change is historic because no other community in Texas has ever had legislation written to create such a unique government entity and to enable it to enter into an agreement with a city to avoid annexation.

The township is a special-purpose district that, in some ways, will look and act like a municipality when it really isn’t.

The township, for example, can collect property and sales taxes to provide services, but it can’t adopt ordinances. It can maintain parks and trails, but it can’t fix potholes or build new streets.

The township board will be responsible for making important decisions about the community just like a city council. It will be made up of seven board members, including a chairman who is similar to a mayor. Daily operations of the government will be overseen by a president whose duties are similar to a city manager.

It doesn’t say in this story, but according to this archived Chron story, the Town Center Improvement District board “would transition from an 11-member body, consisting of appointed and elected directors, to a seven-member communitywide elected board by 2010.” It also says that five of those seats were up for election in 2008, but I can’t find any evidence of that in the Montgomery County election returns. I guess they held the election, and will hold another one in 2010, but I’ll have to take someone’s word for it. As for the setup they’ve chosen, I don’t really have an opinion one way or the other, I’m just sort of fascinated by it. There will likely never be anything else like it.