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             Terry Adams

Lawyer shocks courtroom as he tells state’s top justices that county commissioners took almost four years to fire Bonnie Quiroga after determining her fate in 2010

By Ian White

TWO COUNTY commissioners moved swiftly do deny suspicions that they had broken the law after being asked about an extraordinary claim by one of the attorneys in Thursday’s supreme-court battle between senior county jurist Lonnie Cox, below, and county judge Mark Henry.
Terry Adams, representing Henry in the dispute, told the Austin court’s justices that his client and other commissioners had privately discussed dissatisfaction with the work of the county’s court administration department director Bonnie Quiroga in 2010.
Adams was answering a question by justice Don Willett, who was following up an assertion by the lawyer to justice Jeffrey Boyd that Henry had been aware of “dissatisfaction by the majority” of the commissioners before “asking [Quiroga] to take another job or resign” in July 2014, even though the issue had not been discussed during a regular commissioners’ court meeting.
His answer left astonished observers from both the judicial and executive branches of the county’s local government wondering whether the meetings had, indeed, taken place and, if so, why it had then taken Henry at least 43 months to fire Quiroga.
Stephen Holmes, one of the two still-serving commissioners who were elected before 2010 gave an unequivocal and stern denial that he had been involved in any such meeting.
And Ken Clark, the other, said he had met with Henry and Kevin O’Brien in November and December that year but that the meetings had not broken any law because neither Henry nor O’Brien had yet taken their oath of office.
No other commissioner had been involved in the trio’s meetings, the precinct-four commissioner told The Post.
Meanwhile, asked if he had met with Henry, below, and other commissioners in 2010 to discuss Quiroga’s work performance, Stephen Holmes of precinct three said: “No”.
The mystery was caused in the last few minutes of Adams’ closing presentation to the court when Willett asked if meetings between the county judge and other commissioners outside the confines of regular meetings were “proper” under the state’s open meetings law.
Adams replied: “Yes; they met in 2010 before the act applied to them”.
That was a reference to the fact that Henry was elected to his office on November 2, 2010, and was not sworn into office until January 2011. It’s the oath of office, not electoral victory, that renders an elected official subject to the act.
O’Brien was also elected that November and so was also not yet subject to the act after replacing Bryan Lamb as precinct-two commissioner.
Although Lamb remained subject to the act until his term ended on December 31 that year, along with Holmes, Clark and Patrick Doyle of precinct one, told The Post that none of his constrained commission colleagues had taken part in his discussions with Henry and O’Brien.
Asked how Henry could assume from those meetings so long before that the majority of commissioners were in favor of firing Quiroga in 2014, Clark referred to Ryan Dennard, who replaced Doyle at the 2012 election.
He said: “Everyone knew my opinion against keeping her, then commissioner Dennard told the county judge that he could no longer support her. It’s perfectly legal for two members of the commissioners’ court to discuss matters outside our open meetings, so no law was broken either in 2010 or 2014.”
Whether it was Dennard’s opinion about Quiroga’s continuing value as a county employee that produced a majority upon which Henry could act is unclear. Holmes has supported his fellow commissioners in their legal spat with Cox, her champion in the affair, but it is not known whether Henry consulted him on her employment before terminating her.
Nor is it clear why the county judge felt it necessary to have a majority of the commissioners backing him on the firing.
That did not appear to be a requisite for his unilateral action in December 2010 when, before taking office and while vacationing on a sea cruise, he instructed a county employee to issue termination notices to senior officers including community services director Curtiss Brown, budget director Ron Shelby, human resources director Rosa Franco and San Luis Pass bridge director Dennis Byrd.
The supreme court is expected not to take too long before issuing its ruling in the Cox-Henry case, especially as the subject it raises of correct county governance is the topic of a statewide continuing-education seminar being organized next month by the Texas office of court administration.

County given huge fund in battle against insect disease

By Ian White

THE PERENNIAL local war on mosquitoes has been given a massive shot in the arm as the state and federal governments pour money into fighting their diseases, including zika.
The county health district announced on Friday that it has been awarded $613,380 in federal funding through the state’s health services department to spend on prevention of and response to the insects’ diseases, including $126,000 for mosquito control.
Officials said the health district will use the money on zika-virus surveillance, planning, response, outreach and education, including the purchase of equipment to be used in neighborhood spraying “in the event locally-acquired cases occur in the county”.
Among the equipment listed for purchase are handheld foggers, backpack sprayers, chemicals and traps that can be used in areas as small as homeowners’ backyards.
John Marshall, director of the county’s mosquito control division, said investing in such close-quarters equipment is critical because “the species of mosquito known to transmit the zika virus tends to stay close to homes and not travel far”.
The district said the rest of the funding will be used “primarily for surveillance supplies, prevention kits and public awareness”, adding that the prevention kits “will include mosquito dunks, mosquito repellents and condoms”.
Randy Valcin, the district’s director responsible for epidemiology and public-health emergency preparedness, said: “The kits will be distributed in the neighborhoods of locally-acquired cases so people at increased risk will have the tools to protect themselves”.
Fight The Bite, a year-old public-awareness campaign, is to be ramped up with billboard, website and newspaper advertising, along with messages on social media, and a health communications specialist is to be hired to emphasize the dangers of zika to county residents.
District communications director Scott Packard said the funding is a slice of $9.7 million the state is allocating to local health departments to fight the zika virus until mid 2018.
He said the district submitted a budget for its proposed use of the funding this week and expects approval by March.
County health authority Philip Keiser said: “Zika virus continues to be an emerging health threat we all need to take seriously”.
And health district chief executive Kathy Barroso said the funding will provide “even more resources to make sure that our response is fast, effective and provides the maximum protection to our county”.

Photo by Day Donaldson/MGN

Cox and Henry spat accepted by supreme court

By Ian White

A JUDGE’S battle with the county commissioners is to go before the state’s supreme court in early March.
The county’s senior jurist, Lonnie Cox, and county judge Mark Henry are locked in a legal argument about supervision of the local government’s justice administration department in a case whose repercussions have already reverberated throughout the state.
After losing the argument in district and appeal courts in 2015, the commissioners asked the supreme court last February to review the case and, on Friday, its Austin-based justices agreed to hear oral argument by both sides on March 9.
Both Cox, left, who presides in the 56th district court at the county’s justice center in Galveston, and Henry, below, said on Friday that they were looking forward to their clash in Austin.
Henry, who has courted support from his fellow commissioners as well as cities and local-government groups throughout Texas, issued a statement saying: “The fact that our petition will be heard by the highest court in Texas is very significant.
“I am very eager to have our side make the case that what we did was not only lawful but necessary to look out for Galveston taxpayers and to do the job we were elected to do.”
The statement referred to the case as “very significant” and said it “will have ramifications in every county in Texas regarding separation of powers as to whether a county judge and commissioners court can properly execute their duties, such as budgets, positions and salaries”.
Cox, who has similarly sought the backing of his colleagues on the Galveston benches, was equally bullish, believing that the issue is whether a local judiciary can properly execute its own duties if its chief administrative officer’s job and department are subject to the whim of the executive
On Friday, he called The Post from Washington, where he was attending the presidential inauguration to say: “It was us, not them, who requested an oral hearing, so I am very excited that we now have a date.
“I expect the supreme court to put this thing completely to rest because Mark Henry keeps interfering with the judiciary. It’s pitiful.”

                                                   courthouses.co

By Ian White

CIVIL SERVANTS in the county’s tax offices are about to work longer hours and take shorter lunch breaks in an effort to help residents meet the 2016 property-tax deadline on January 31.
But property owners who leave payment until the last minute could still miss out – because more than 20,000 motorists are expected to renew their vehicle registrations in the meantime!
With only days remaining for timely payment of last year’s property-tax bill, tax assessor Cheryl Johnson said the tax office “is making it as easy as possible” for property owners to avoid penalties for late payment.
She said the office’s Galveston and League City branches will both open for extended hours on January 31 and that extra staff will be helping out in all branches, with shortened lunches “to keep the counters full throughout the last week of January”.  
Johnson also released a set of “fast facts” about payment options that made it clear there is no provision for disaster installments this year.
As well as being the last day for full payment, January 31, on Tuesday next week, is also the last day for seniors, disabled people and disabled armed-service veterans or their surviving spouses to pay their first quarterly installment.
The tax office’s League City and Galveston branches will open from 7:30am to 5:30pm on January 31, with all offices including Santa Fe and Texas City open daily 8:00am to 5:00pm in the meantime and its Friendswood satellite for the same hours on Thursday and Friday.
Anyone needing directions to any of the locations can call 1-877-766-2284.
Property owners can pay in person by cash, check and credit or debit card but not by credit-card check.
They can also drop their payment in boxes outside the branch offices before 8:00am on February 1 or send payment by mail bearing a non-meter USPS postmark no later than January 31.
Johnson said postal payers should remember that the county’s mail is routed through north Houston, adding a day to the postmarking process.
Online payment at galcotax.com requires a $1 fee for an electronic check or a 2.5 per cent bank fee for using a credit card.
Telephone payments can be made with credit or debit card at 1-866-865-1433 for instructions in English and 1-866-865-1435 for a Spanish-language alternative.

Court asked to rule now on election maps dispute

By Ian White

PLAINTIFFS challenging the Texas congressional election maps adopted in 2011 filed a joint motion on Friday to compel a federal district court to issue an urgent decision on their claims that the redistricted maps are discriminatory and violate the federal Voting Rights act and the US constitution.
If the three-judge San Antonio court does not issue its final decision by January 17, the motion said the plaintiffs will “seek relief in an appellate court” to prevent what they claim are the Republican-supported maps’ gerrymandering effects.Angle, Matt 2015
The election boundaries in current use are based on interim plans ordered by the San Antonio court in 2012 but the plaintiffs say the plans retain many of the features they claim discriminate against Hispanic and African-American voters, especially those in Corpus Christi, San Antonio, the border region, Travis County and Dallas-Fort Worth.
According to Democrat activist Matt Angle, the motion argues that continued delay not only allows continuing harm to minority voters but could prevent resolution of the case before a new census is taken.
He said: “A decision from the court is long overdue. It has been nearly six years since the complaints were initially filed and more than two years since the trial on the merits of the case concluded.”
Quesada
Angle, above, is the director of Democrat-leaning political action committee Lone Star Project, which has been engaged in the Texas redistricting fight from its outset, supporting the overall efforts of the plaintiffs in the case and providing technical and financial support to one group, known as the Quesada plaintiffs.
He said: “Texas Republicans adopted maps that are off the charts in terms of racial and partisan gerrymandering. They grossly and intentionally discriminate against Hispanic and African-American Texans, which harms every Texas citizen.
“The court has a hard and complicated job sorting out how extensively Texas Republicans have violated the law but a decision is needed now so that the work to repair the damage being done to all Texas voters can begin.”