December 21, 2014
By Jayme Fraser
Incoming Waller County leaders are pledging more transparency in the wake of a jury’s verdict that sitting county commissioners illegally discussed a contentious landfill project in closed-door sessions and in private with the project’s developer.
“Transparency and open government were significant issues during the recent campaign,” said County Judge-elect Trey Duhon. “This jury verdict sends a statement that we must do a better job of operating our county government… Business as usual will no longer be tolerated in Waller County.”
Duhon was one of three landfill opponents elected to the commissioners court in November – elections that followed victories by two other landfill opponents in 2012, John Amsler and Jeron Barnett. Come January, landfill opponents will have a majority on the commissioners court.
While the outgoing county judge and commissioners maintained they had little choice but to agree to host the 250-acre landfill just outside the city of Hempstead, a county jury found after a three-week trial that the panel’s majority had violated the state’s Open Meetings Act and Public Information Act on multiple occasions.
Incoming commissioners say they plan not only to step up the fight against the landfill but to change the way that the county does business.
“It’s the dawn of a new era in Waller County,” Amsler said after Thursday’s civil verdict. “For many years, we’ve had a reputation of questionable politics. Now, we’ve turned the lights on in Waller County.”
The trial concerned the legality of Waller County’s 2013 decision to reverse a 2011 ordinance that prohibited the proposed Pintail Landfill and instead sign an agreement to host the project. The vote was 3-2, with Amsler and Barnett dissenting. The city of Hempstead and Citizens Against the Landfill in Hempstead sued. They challenged the county’s jurisdiction over the landfill area – it’s located partially within the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction – as well as the commissioners’ alleged lack of transparency throughout the approval process.
Thursday’s verdict provided some of the first answers in the three-year legal debate.
After less than three hours of deliberation to review nine different charges, 11 of 12 jurors concluded Waller County – primarily County Judge Glenn Beckendorff and Commissioners Stan Kitzman and Frank Pokluda – had repeatedly violated open meetings and public records laws.
To landfill opponents, the verdict built upon the findings of two special prosecutors, who wrote in a February letter to The Waller Times that commissioners should curtail their “bad habits … privately discussing public business.” In January, a grand jury reviewed the prosecutors’ evidence on alleged transparency law violations, but did not bring any criminal indictments.
The commissioners court that takes office Jan. 1 will represent a complete makeover from the one condemned in Thursday’s civil court verdict.
“We have a lot of work to do, but I’m excited and ready to get to work now that this trial is behind us,” Duhon said.
Along with Duhon, Russell Klecka and Justin Beckendorff were elected last month to the commissioners court.
County Judge Beckendorff, who voted to allow the landfill, has said the lifted restrictions would not have held up, given the timeline of Pintail’s permit application.
Thursday’s verdict does not block the landfill, but nonetheless creates momentum for those opposed to the project, who fear it would hurt property values and pollute an aquifer that serves the Houston area.
Retired Judge Terry Flenniken is expected to rule on the jurisdictional question of the case on Jan. 21. He also could invalidate the 2013 ordinance based on the finding that commissioners met illegally.
Armed with the civil court’s ruling, landfill opponents, including incoming county leaders, also will seek to convince the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to reverse its preliminary decision to issue a permit.
Brent Ryan, attorney for Pintail Landfill, a subsidiary of Georgia-based Green Group Holdings, said he is confident the project will move forward.
“We’re in full compliance with the law,” he said. “We’re used to seeing people who don’t want us to build a landfill. We’ve dealt with that before. What we’re not used to is the kind of vicious attacks on local officials that we’ve seen here, and who frankly made it clear from the beginning they would have stopped us if they could.”
The civil case also has prompted more citizens to take an interest in county government and the landfill project.
Two alternate jurors waited hours for the decision despite being released from their duties before Thursday morning’s closing arguments.
“I didn’t know anything about the landfill before this,” said Dennis McIntyre of Waller, who considered himself an engaged voter. “(Pokluda) didn’t mention anything about it when I shook his hand… I had no idea these kind of dealings were going on.”
“It made me realize I should be paying more attention,” added Michelle Patton of Hockley, sitting near McIntyre as they waited for the verdict. “The decision would’ve been pretty easy for me. Where did they discuss the landfill if not in executive session? You’re telling me they voted for it only after talking to their attorney? It just doesn’t make sense.”
Glenn Beckendorff, who did not seek reelection, as well as Kitzman and Pokluda, who were defeated in March’s Republican primary, insisted they did nothing wrong.
James Allison, the county’s hired attorney, had argued that the case wasn’t about corruption. He said Beckendorff and others did what they must to protect their constituents, adopting a 2013 ordinance that blocked landfills anywhere else in the county except for the site where the state already had approved a draft permit to build. He said some incumbents were ousted because they could not do more and the public turned on them.
Beckendorff said it was difficult to be repeatedly targeted throughout the trial and labeled the ringleader of shady politics.
“We’re disappointed, no doubt,” he said after the verdict, his eyes red from rubbing away tears. “We elected officials did the right thing.”
Kitzman, leaning against the frame of a nearby window, lamented that the debate tarnished four years of good service.
“I became commissioner to help make challenging decisions,” he said. “We did our very best to prepare for Waller County’s future.”
Pokluda, who has been a county commissioner since 1991, did not linger in the courtroom. He later said he had “a clear conscience.”
“I’m raising two grandkids. I have a 94-year-old father who comes by. It’s been harder on them,” he said of the yearslong debate.
The road leading to his home in Waller is dotted with signs condemning him.
Despite the heated debate and sometimes personal attacks, Pokluda thinks the rhetoric will soften and fade with time, just as it did when constituents were angry about his support of an airport project.
“I’m still gonna serve the county as much as I can,” he said. “I’m not going to turn my back on the county.”