Politics

Ian White EXCLUSIVE

No phone, no pay – not yet

Mark Henry tells court Bonnie Quiroga ‘has no job’

COUNTY JUDGE Mark Henry endured almost a day in the witness box as the most important civil legal case in Galveston for some years continued on Monday.
Henry began the day answering questions from independent Galveston attorney Mark Stevens, who is representing 56th-district-court judge Lonnie Cox in the two county leaders’ dispute about the supervision of a key member of staff.
Visiting judge Sharolyn Wood listened to witness and counsel trading at-times testy retorts as Stevens attempted to extract information from a feisty Henry in a bid to persuade Wood to grant an injunction preventing the county commissioners from taking any action relating to the work of the county’s justice administration department.
Stevens quizzed Henry on the timing of his first reference to insubordination as a reason for firing the department’s boss, justice administration director Bonnie Quiroga, in July last year.
Lock change
The county judge said it was correct that insubordination had not been mentioned in her termination letter.
Part of Stevens’ questioning involved the changing of the lock on the door of Quiroga’s former office at the time of her reinstatement by Cox and his supporting judges on June 8.
Henry said he had not instructed changing the lock before Quiroga tried to gain entry but had told a locksmith to change it later that day.
He said the county was continuing to deny her the use of the office, as well as a phone, e-mail account and computer, or to pay her, because she is not an employee of the organization.
When asked why she could not have a phone, he said: “She doesn’t have an office – she doesn’t need a phone.”
Asked why the county is not paying her, he replied: “She doesn’t have a job.”
The mood changed significantly when Henry’s own counsel, Ed Friedman of the Houston office of major national law firm BakerHostetler, began questioning his client.
Henry said the county commissioners had not reduced Quiroga’s salary in deciding on June 13 that the judges could have a court administrator earning between $57,000 and some $63,600.
“We didn’t reduce anyone’s salary,” he said. “We created a new position.”
He said the new position would carry responsibility for about 25 per cent of the workload previously under Quiroga’s control.
Asked later why he fired her, he accused her of “misappropriation of funds”, of “mismanagement of JP collections” and “excessive absences” from work.
County legal department chief Bob Boemer and Henry’s chief of staff, Tyler Drummond, also gave evidence on Monday, with Drummond still on the stand when Wood halted proceedings for the day.
The Post will report on further sessions of the case in Sunday’s edition.

Lerner lesson in complexity

A quick guide to the case’s legal procedure

AS IF THE dispute between the county commissioners and local judges were not complex enough, it took an extra twist on Friday when part of the case being heard in the 405th district court was transferred to the 56th – with the same visiting judge presiding for that hearing.
The reason for the split was twofold.
First, visiting judge Sharolyn Wood decreed that the temporary restraining order that is the subject of the case involves two claims – one for an injunction and the other for a contempt-of-court ruling – and that their legal rules of evidence are distinctly different, requiring separate hearings.
She declared that the correct procedure for determining the contempt element was to remand it back to the court that had made the order occasioning the alleged contempt. That court is the 56th district court and the alleged contempt claims that the defendant before her, county judge Mark Henry, and his colleagues on the commissioners’ court have contravened an order signed there on September 24 last year.
Second, because the plaintiff before her, Lonnie Cox, is the presiding judge in the 56th and signed the disputed order, he immediately voluntarily recused himself from the contempt hearing, necessitating the appointment of a visiting judge in his stead.
Wood had already been told by appointing judge Olen Underwood of the state’s second judicial district that she has jurisdiction for every element of the dispute so, when her work in the 405th has ended, she will move on to the 56th to determine whether Henry and the commissioners are in contempt of Cox’s September order.
At present, she is standing in for the 405th’s Michelle Slaughter who, as one of the judges standing foursquare behind Cox in the suit, has recused herself from its hearings.
Complicated? It gets worse. In case you want to watch the most experienced members of our local government beating themselves up in the case being heard by the 405th (and assuming that, by the time you read this, it will still be rumbling along), you’ll need to present yourself not there but at the county justice center’s Lerner court.
We’re not yet sure who decided that – somehow, we doubt that it was the newly reinstated Miss Quiroga – but let’s hope it indicates that there’s still a wicked sense of humor somewhere within the walls of the Galveston County establishment.

Court in the act? Not yet

County leaders’ dispute delayed for the weekend

By Ian White

THE COUNTY’S top judges and commissioners must wait a little longer for the next impartial decision in their legal dispute after a visiting judge delayed hearing their claims on Friday.
Judge Sharolyn Wood held over until tomorrow, Monday, a hearing on a temporary restraining order dated June 7 after counsel for both sides agreed that they wanted to debate its effects as an injunction and to defer arguing its main clause, a contempt-of-court order to be answered by county judge Mark Henry.
Wood said that, after reading the TRO, which visiting judge David Garner granted to district-court judge Lonnie Cox, she had understood Friday’s hearing would be a suit by Cox claiming Henry had acted in contempt of an order he signed last September.
When both counsel referred to an injunction, Wood said the two issues were separate and referred the contempt issue back to the court that made the order – Cox’s 56th district court.
Cox immediately voluntarily recused himself from hearing the issue and, after a lengthy recess, Wood set 9:00am tomorrow for the start of the injunction hearing.

GCSeal Webe Size

Quiroga goes back to work

By Ian White

BONNIE Quiroga returned to work at the county justice center on Monday, despite an order by county judge Mark Henry and the mysterious sudden appearance of a lock on her office door.
Quiroga, whose return came almost 11 months after being summarily fired by Henry, was let into the building by three senior judges and county sheriff Henry Trochesett, who undid the lock with his building master key.
Hours later, one of the judges, Lonnie Cox of the 56th district court, issued his own order to “effectuate the enforcement” of his September 2014 decree that her termination as the county’s court administration director had been illegal.
But who will pay her remained another mystery as county commissioner Ryan Dennard told The Post on Monday evening that, as a result of her unexpected reinstatement by the judges, it was unlikely that the commissioners would vote to fund her salary.
Asked if that meant the judges would have to pay her themselves, he said: “I am curious to find out. Tuesday’s  commissioners’ court meeting will be long and interesting.”
The Post will report on the meeting and its ramifications for the executive and judicial branches of the county’s government in Sunday’s edition.

Barroso, Kathy 2015 web ready              Kathy Borroso

A hot hello for Barroso?

New health chief ‘moving on’ in animal-control spat with cities

By Ian White

KATHY Barroso’s appointment as interim boss of the county’s health district comes while the district is in a tense standoff with three city governments for which she has been blamed by at least one senior city official.
Dickinson city administrator Julie Robinson says it was a policy change by Barroso, above right, who has replaced the soon-to-retire Mark Guidry as the district’s chief executive, that caused the three cities to rip up their animal-control-service contracts with the county.
Along with Dickinson, the cities of Santa Fe and Clear Lake Shores are upset that, as administrative head of the district’s animal-control service, last year she advised the district’s budget-setting board to approve a figure higher than the amount they feel had been agreed for the service before the board met.
Robinson told The Post: “Her recommendation of a budget different from the one approved by the cities that would be funding it undermined the consortium’s trust in the budget-setting process.”
After the board voted for the more expensive budget, Dickinson and Santa Fe refused to pay more than they had allocated for this fiscal year and, in March, all three cities told the district that they will not renew their contracts for its animal-control service after September 30.
Any chance that they would relent looks less likely with Barroso’s administrative elevation, even though replacing the district service could prove a costly exercise for them.
But, having overseen the service for quite some time, Barroso is unlikely to be fazed by the disagreement as she received good news last week for proposals she was already working on for new contracts for its remaining clients.
The county commissioners’ court voted on May 26 to ensure that neither the district nor its remaining clients will lose out financially when their new contracts begin on October 1.
Unless the rebels return, the clients will consist of the county and a consortium of city entities consisting of Bayou Vista, Hitchcock, Kemah, La Marque, Texas City and Tiki Island.
Barroso told The Post she hopes that the dispute with the three cities can be resolved but that her main concern as far as the district’s animal-services division is concerned is that it deserves credit for improvements and the services that its staff provides.
She said: “A lot of good things are happening at the county’s animal shelter in Texas City. Adoption rates are up and euthanasia rates are down – a lot of that gets lost in arguments about the budget and I hope the public can see just how much good is being done by all our animal-control staff.”
On the possibility of a rapprochement with the three dissenting cities, she said: “They made their decisions and submitted their termination. While I regret that decision, we have no option but to move forward. None has given me or the board any indication of a desire to rejoin the consortium.”
Robinson, meanwhile, is staying mum on her city’s plans to replace the district service and did not comment on that aspect of the issue in speaking to The Post for this article.

State lawmakers quarrel on tax giveaways

By Ian White

HOMEOWNERS and businesses have become the pawns in a tax-cutting battle between the state’s senate and house of representatives.
In the wake of governor Greg Abbott’s call for a tax-cutting budget during his state-of-the-state address at the beginning of this year’s legislative session, the Republican-Party leaders of both chambers have proposed competing measures they each claim will save money for Texas taxpayers.
Both sides claim the other’s plan would fritter the state’s money in the wrong direction and they also disagree on the method of calculating individual taxpayer savings.
The senate’s president, lieutenant governor Dan Patrick, and finance-committee chairman, senator Jane Nelson, want to make the cuts by lifting the property-tax homestead exemption threshold in a proposal that could quadruple it next year for Galveston County homeowners.

Patrick, DanDan Patrick

But representative Dennis Bonnen, who heads the house’s ways and means committee, favors a deeper discount in the business franchise tax and is also proposing a cut in the state’s sales tax that, if passed, would become the first reduction in that tax’s rate since it was introduced in 1961.
Bonnen, a businessman who represents Brazoria County, says his proposals will save the “average family of four” $172 per year, with “substantial savings as well” for Texas’ employers. Patrick counters that the family saving is worth just $43 “per person per year” while the senate’s gift amounts to “an estimated $442 in two-year savings to Texas homeowners”, including at least $412 in property-tax cuts.
Bonnen introduced his tax-relief package on Wednesday, upping the stakes in the two chambers’ contest to see who can give away the greater share of the state’s $19.4 billion 2015-17 budget.

Bonnen, Dennis-headshotDennis Bonnen

The senate had already introduced a plan worth $4.454 billion in cuts over the two-year budget period, but Bonnen trumped them, at least for the time being, with proposals that would slash $4.87 billion from the total.
Of that, his plan would reduce the state’s revenue for the biennium by $2.31 billion by cutting its sales-tax rate from 6.25 per cent to 5.95 per cent. The senate’s plan has no sales-tax element.
Bonnen’s proposal would also collect $2.56 billion less in the business franchise, or margins, tax by cutting its rate by 25 per cent for all Texas businesses.
That measure is designed to appeal to big businesses, especially capital-intensive industrial concerns, which Bonnen said are likely to feel left out of the small-business-conscious senate alternative.
Under the senate’s proposals, a 15 per cent cut in the franchise tax would be accompanied by exemption from payment altogether for 61,000 of the state’s small and medium businesses.
At present, some 117,000 companies pay the tax, with 11,000 filing via the state’s EZ system. Any EZ filers not included in the 61,000 would see their rate cut by 42 per cent and the overall effect of all the senate franchise-tax proposals would be a $2.3 billion reduction in state revenue.

Nelson, Jane-Senator  nelson.senate.state.tx.usJane Nelson

The senate measures would also reduce the state’s tax take by $2.154 billion by changing the property-tax homestead exemption from $15,000 for school levies to 25 per cent of the median home value, a figure Patrick and Taylor say will increase year by year, saving homeowners even more than their estimated $206 average in the plan’s first year.
If passed, the proposal would have a dramatic effect in Galveston County, where property-sales website Zillow records the current median price of homes listed for sale as $246,000, enough to lift the homestead exemption threshold to $61,500.
However, for any tax cuts to become reality, the two chambers must agree the way forward before the legislative session ends. If they do not, they face being called back to Austin by Abbott for a special session until they do agree. The regular session is due to end on June 1.
• Coming Wednesday: Patrick and Bonnen tell Post readers why their proposals are best for Texas.