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Mercedes murder convict Clara Harris gets parole

Clara Harris, the Friendswood dentist who murdered her husband with a Mercedes-Benz sedan after finding him with his lover at a Nassau Bay hotel, will soon be released from prison.

A parole panel Friday approved Harris’ release pending successful completion of certain prison programs and activities, Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles officials announced this week. The board did not elaborate about the programs.

The board cited “institutional adjustment” as a reason Harris was being released.

Harris, 59, won’t actually be released from custody until she finishes the programs, which takes about six months, said Jason Clark, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Harris will remain on parole until her designated release date of Feb. 10, 2023, board spokesman Raymond Estrada said in a very brief prepared statement.

On Feb. 14, 2003 — the 11th anniversary of her marriage to David Harris — Clara Harris was convicted of murder and sentenced to 20 years in a state penitentiary. She was eligible for parole after serving 10 years.

Harris, a former Colombian beauty queen, faced up to life in prison but drew a lesser penalty because jurors found she was driven by “sudden passion” to run down her orthodontist husband while his teenage daughter, Lindsey Harris, sat horrified in the passenger seat.

By all accounts, David and Clara Harris were both successful dentists.

The couple owned a $500,000 home in Friendswood’s Polly Ranch Estates, six dental practices with yearly revenue of about $650,000, vacation homes in Texas and Colorado and had what appeared to be a solid, loving marriage. At the time of the David Harris’ death, they had toddling twin boys.

But their marriage unraveled in July 2002, when Clara Harris learned of her husband’s affair with Gail Bridges, a woman who worked as a receptionist at his Clear Lake area dental office.

Clara Harris confronted her husband. He promised to end it; she vowed to be a better wife, she testified.

But David Harris didn’t keep his promise. On July 24, 2002, Clara Harris confronted her husband and Bridges at the Nassau Bay Hilton. She found them holding hands. A nasty fight ensued. David Harris told his wife the marriage was over, and she ran him down and killed him in the hotel parking lot with a silver S-class Mercedes-Benz.

Clara Harris contended all along she never meant to kill her husband. But the testimony of stepdaughter, Lindsey Harris, then 17, hurt her most.

Lindsey Harris’ voice and hands trembled at the trial when she recalled her stepmother saying, “I’m going to hit him,” before driving the heavy German sedan over David Harris.


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Undamaged San Luis bridge listed for Harvey funding

Local officials say they don’t know how a state request for Hurricane Harvey relief money came to assert the San Luis Pass Bridge had been destroyed, but stand by the idea that the federal money could be used to rebuild the aged structure.

Meanwhile, a group that successfully challenged a state plan for spending federal disaster money after Hurricane Ike said it was vetting the Harvey request for projects that wouldn’t provide real hurricane relief.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s office Oct. 31 released a 300-page document outlining $61 billion in projects the state hopes will be funded with federal relief dollars. Each proposed project includes a description, the benefit that would come from funding the project and the return on investment the project would provide.

The description of the Galveston County San Luis Pass Bridge Project requests $135 million, and suggests the funding come from a transportation infrastructure source, or from disaster recovery money awarded through FEMA or through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s disaster recovery block grant program.

The bridge is twice described as “destroyed” in the report by the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas.

That’s incorrect, however, and the bridge sustained no significant damage during the storm, County Engineer Michael Shannon said.

“It’s still safe to the public,” Shannon said.

The county is working with the governor’s commission to correct the project description, officials said. It’s not clear where the notion the bridge was destroyed came from.

In early October, the county sent to the commission a list of local projects that might qualify for federal disaster assistance. The county’s list included the San Luis Pass Bridge, but did not describe it as “destroyed.”

The project is included on the county’s list because some think a replacement bridge could be part of a surge barrier meant to protect Galveston Island during future storms, Precinct 4 Commissioner Ken Clark said.

Clark said he envisioned a combination land bridge — one built partially on jetties jutting into the San Luis Pass — and a lift gate stretching across the pass that would create a storm surge barrier.

“We could include that as part of the coastal surge protection,” Clark said. “In a rising water event we could drop the doors and create a barrier that would keep storm surge out of the back side of the bay.”

There’s wide agreement the San Luis Pass Bridge is in need of repairs. County commissioners in February received a report that the bridge was in “fair” condition. At the time, Shannon asked commissioners to pay for a more detailed evaluation, but they declined to do so.

The bridge in 2004 underwent $9.4 million in repairs that were supposed to last between 15 years and 20 years, Shannon said.

The idea of a replacement bridge has come up before. In 2003, the cost for a new bridge was estimated to be $24 million. Clark said he didn’t know why the new proposal calls for five times that amount, but noted current estimates for a new, shorter Pelican Island Bridge are between $65 million and $121 million.

It is too early to say whether the project would qualify for any type of Hurricane Harvey relief.

Abbott said he had been promised a new relief funding bill by the middle of November, but Congress might not vote on another package until December, when a must-pass bill to continue funding the federal government will come up.

Some of the items on the state’s $61 billion list are drawing scrutiny from outside observers.

John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, said his organization was compiling a list of projects with questionable connections to Hurricane Harvey recovery.

“I have a sense that there are a number of projects on that $61 billion list that fall into the category of general public works wish-list projects,” Henneberger said. “We want to make sure that legitimate hurricane damages are funded on a priority basis.

“If there are families who need disaster recovery assistance to complete the repairs on their homes, those certainly ought to take precedent.”

After Hurricane Ike in 2008, Henneberger’s group and others challenged some projects for which local governments had sought federal funding. The effort led to an agreement that guaranteed more funding for low- and moderate-income housing projects.


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Fate of seawall parking fees may hang on improvements

GALVESTON

Under terms of a “sunset” provision, Galveston’s parking fee program on Seawall Boulevard will end in July 2020, unless the city council calls a public referendum and voters agree to extend the program.

Five of the six council members eligible for another term all expressed some form of support for the program, but several also acknowledged potential difficulties in getting the public to OK the plan a second time.

“I’m not sure if it goes back to voters that it would pass again,” District 2 Councilman Craig Brown said.

The sixth member who is eligible for re-election, Councilman Mike Doherty, of District 4, could not be reached for comment.

Voters in 2011 approved the parking fee program on Seawall Boulevard to raise money for improvements along the beach front. Voters were promised that revenues would be used to make and maintain improvements such as installing public restrooms, pedestrian lighting and bus stops.

The plan was controversial, and the ballot language specifically included a sunset provision that stipulates the program will end in 2020 unless voters decide it should continue.

The parking fee program debuted in 2013. Initial enhancements — which were paid for by a federal grant but will be maintained by the parking revenue — are just now in the final stages of completion.

“If we could get the improvements done quicker, I think we would have more buy-in to it,” District 6 Councilwoman Carolyn Sunseri said.

As of August this year, the city held $1.1 million in unused revenue from Seawall parking fees, revenue and expense reports showed.

The city began collecting fees in 2013 but transferred operations of the program to the Galveston Park Board of Trustees in late 2014. The park board covers salary and operations costs and transfers a portion of the parking revenue to the city.

Since the park board took over the program in 2014, the city has only spent $54,470 from the fund by August of this year, according to the reports. That spending occurred mostly before September 2015 and on costs associated with salary reimbursements and bank fees, the records show.

The city won’t likely use its parking revenues on new projects until it assesses the success of the Seawall Beautification Project, City Manager Brian Maxwell has said. The $6 million beautification project — paid for by a Federal Transit Administration grant — will add bathrooms, new lighting, bus stops and planter boxes to the boulevard.

The five bathrooms, dubbed Portland Loos, are the last of the project to be completed. Those beach front bathrooms are supposed to be up and running by the end of the month, city spokeswoman Jaree Fortin said.

City officials have said the plan is to use the grants to pay for construction of the enhancements, and the parking fund to pay for maintenance and upkeep of the enhancements.

Mayor Jim Yarbrough, who said he is undecided about whether to run for a third and final term, said he would ideally call a referendum on the issue for November 2019. While the program most likely wouldn’t look exactly the same as it does now, Yarbrough said he likes the revenue it brings to the city.

“We’re finally starting to see some of the benefits of that money,” Yarbrough said. “Certain things were said and committed to, it just takes a while to get some of the money and the plans. Those things are finally starting to come to fruition.”

Some council members floated ideas to change the program. Brown, for example, said he’d like to see parking on the south side of the seawall removed, both for paid and unpaid parking.

“I wouldn’t want to do that until we see what the alternatives are,” Brown said.

Sunseri said she would eventually like to see parking moved off the beach side of the seawall, although she acknowledged that wouldn’t be a likely option just yet. For now, the program seems to be effective, Sunseri said.

“I’d be in favor of extending the program just because I think it’s working,” Sunseri said. “It’s the visitors that are using the parking and it’s just a way of trying to capture some revenue from those visiting the island.”

If seawall parking isn’t renewed in 2020, maintenance costs for the enhancements would likely come from the city’s general fund, Maxwell has said.

District 5 Councilwoman Terrilyn Tarlton-Shannon, the one council member who is now term-limited and can’t run for a fourth term on her seat, said she couldn’t voice an opinion on the program until she sees the most recent revenue reports.

Councilwoman Amy Bly, of District 1, said she is at least in favor of the money the program brings to the island.

“The money from it, I know, is good,” Bly said. “I just have this one little twinge about how nothing in Galveston is free, and it would be nice to have the beach be free.”

Only Councilman Frank Maceo, of District 3, expressed wholehearted support of the program and said that it should absolutely be extended, no questions asked.

“Hell yes,” Maceo said. “Straight up, parking is a commodity on this island, and that’s the end of the story.”


Coming Friday

Galveston City Council will revisit the possible abandonment of some property on and around the hotly debated Classic Porretto Beach.


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Hit by wave of problems, Hitchcock hires consultant

HITCHCOCK

A perfect storm of unfortunate events has left the city secretary managing Hitchcock’s affairs while a recently hired consulting firm tries to help the city assess its financial picture and fortify operations.

The city of Hitchcock in the past few months has experienced a maelstrom of setbacks, which began with Hurricane Harvey in late August and got worse when Mayor Anthony Matranga was hospitalized, said C.B. “Bix” Rathburn, a former county economic development director who resigned in June to become an independent consultant.

City commissioners voted Tuesday to empower Mayor pro tem Randy Stricklind to negotiate a deal with Rathburn to evaluate Hitchcock’s financial situation, operational structure and staffing and to eventually help in selecting an interim city administrator to oversee daily operations.

Commissioners could eventually hire a full-time city administrator, Rathburn said.

“This is an option that may or may not work for the city,” Rathburn said. “I am not the person to oversee daily operations at the city, but it’s clear Hitchcock is at a crossroads. My proposal is to assess where the city is financially with staff and everything else.”

Parts of Hitchcock, just north of Galveston Bay and west of Interstate 45, were hit hard by Hurricane Harvey, which made landfall Aug. 25 in Rockport, 200 miles south of the county, and moved up the Texas coast.

The storm dumped more than 50 inches of rain in some parts of this county, swelling creeks and bayous and flooding an estimated 20,000 homes in the county and devastating parts of Houston.

Shortly after the storm, Matranga found himself hospitalized briefly, he said.

While Matranga was out of the hospital by Tuesday’s special meeting, his role in the city’s operations is reduced, commissioners said.

Matranga, who is retired, had previously headed the city’s operations as Hitchcock does not have a city manager.

Debris removal also became an immediate concern for cities when the cleanup began; but Hitchcock, with a population of about 7,800 people, didn’t have a contract on hand, officials said. Hitchcock City Hall also sustained heavy damage during the storm.

Commissioners on Tuesday told Lucy Dieringer she was in charge of managing city staff for the time being.

“Lucy, we are counting on you to step up and run things,” Commissioner Mark Cook said. “That doesn’t mean you have to do everything, but you do have to manage everyone.”

Dieringer takes over managing operations during a critical time for the city.

Hitchcock has 60 days to document and work through all the necessary paperwork to get reimbursed for Hurricane Harvey damage through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Dieringer said. It needs the help of an engineering firm to get that done, officials said.

“We still have not officially gone out for an RFP (request for proposal) for an engineering firm,” said Sabrina Schwertner, executive director of the Hitchcock Industrial Development Corp. “There are things that have to be done.”

Commissioner Monica Cantrell Tuesday asked Rathburn if he could accelerate his proposed five-month timeline for examining the city’s affairs.

“I look at the city like a multimillion-dollar business,” Cook said. “With a business of that size, you need someone to come in and run it. We don’t have that right now.”

Rathburn told commissioners he could prioritize the different aspects of the city review by order of importance to help make deadlines with FEMA, in addition to others.

The financial aspect of the review is most important considering the pending FEMA deadline and the need to keep within the approved budget, Cantrell said.

Once the city is steered out of its most immediate Harvey-related woes, commissioners should also consider developing a strategic plan to guide it forward, Rathburn said.

Commissioners unanimously approved allowing Stricklind to negotiate with Rathburn, but financial details weren’t immediately available because there wasn’t a final contract, Stricklind said.

“We have been faced with a lot of immediate challenges in the post-Harvey recovery, but we are striving to build a more resilient Hitchcock for the future of our community,” Schwertner said.

Rathburn said he founded his consulting firm, Rathburn Planning & Consulting, in 2012. His firm developed facility and master plans for La Marque and other entities between 2012 and 2014.

Rathburn was hired by Galveston County in July 2015 at an annual salary of $130,000, according to the county.

Before starting at the county, Rathburn was the executive director of the Galveston County Economic Alliance for about a year. He was the president of Texas A&M University at Texarkana from July 2008 to August 2013 before resigning with little explanation, according to the Texarkana Gazette.

Rathburn was previously president of Savannah Technical College from 2000 to 2008. A Georgia Office of the Inspector General found Rathburn had abused the position by asking the auto department head to purchase parts for his personal vehicle and failing to reimburse him in a timely manner.

The report also found he used state money to cover the initial cost of a catering event for a board member. He resigned several months after the report was completed.

Rathburn was the president of Galveston College from 1995 to 2000.


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Search continues for county development director

GALVESTON

County commissioners this month will begin interviewing economic development director candidates and could have someone in the position as early as the end of the year, Commissioner Joe Giusti said.

This week, the Galveston County Commissioners Court unanimously approved the second phase with executive search firm Next Move Group to assist in hiring a new director.

The court hired the New Orleans-based search firm in July to find a new director after the former economic development director CB “Bix” Rathburn resigned in June.

The search was split in three phases at a total price tag of $27,000: $9,000 for interview in local business and government leaders to build a set of goals for the new director; $9,000 to identify and vet candidates; and a final $9,000 when the employee is hired, company CEO Chad Chancellor said.

In interviews with city economic development directors and city staff in the county, many said they were looking for a county position that would help identify prospects, Chancellor told commissioners.

“The idea is this person needs to generate the activity and work hand-in-hand with whichever community has the site or building,” Chancellor said.

The firm also identified some measurable goals for the new director, which weren’t in place as clearly when the county hired Rathburn as the economic director in 2015, Giusti said.

Those include helping deliver 100 jobs to the county in the first year and 1,000 jobs in three years, either through new business or expansion, Chancellor said Monday.

Local economic developers also wanted the new director to be a team player, Chancellor said. Those municipal directors wanted a person to identify leads, but wanted to work with the clients on sealing the deal because that usually includes local tax incentives, he said.

“The thinking is basically it’s a position that can be extremely successful, but you have to be able to monitor it and see if it’s actually bringing jobs,” Giusti said.

In 2015, the county paid an annual salary of $130,000 for the economic development director, not including additional expenses for the position, according to the county.

In an August commissioners court workshop, Chancellor proposed an annual budget for the economic development office of about $300,000, including travel and meeting expenses for conferences and meetings, prospect-finding services and an assistant.

But the director salary probably did not need to be as high as it had originally been, he said. He estimated between $95,000 and $110,000 for the position.

“You have tremendous benefits at the county so we think that’s attractive,” Chancellor said.

“We think it’s a great place to live and frankly so many economic developers are dying to come to a place that has this kind of infrastructure and opportunity so we think you can get a high-level person without paying as much possibly as you’ve been paying.”

Commissioners had initially been uncertain whether to fill the position after Rathburn resigned, Giusti said. They determined the position could benefit the county if the director was able to establish leads, however, he said.

“Would the jobs come anyway? Maybe,” Giusti said.

But establishing contacts and leads within some of the area’s choice industries increases the likelihood of bringing those jobs to the area, Giusti said.

Galveston County’s next economic development director will likely target industries such as maritime, petrochemical and technology-related firms, Commissioner Ken Clark said.

“As far as the county is concerned, whether it’s in Galveston or Friendswood or Kemah doesn’t matter a lot to us as long as it’s in the county,” Clark said.

Those industries have promise in many of the county’s cities where infrastructure and potential for workforce already exists, Clark said.


Jennifer Reynolds/The Daily News  

C.B. “Bix” Rathburn