Three island residents running for city council in next month’s municipal election topped the $10,000 mark in campaign contributions. The numbers far surpass amounts raised in the same period during the last council election and could lead to spending at levels not seen since 2014.
District 3 Councilman Frank Maceo, District 3 candidate David Collins and District 6 Councilwoman Carolyn Sunseri each raised more than $10,000 for their campaigns, according to finance reports submitted Thursday to the Galveston City Secretary’s Office.
The numbers far surpass what council candidates reported raising during the same election period in 2016, the last time the city council was elected. The first campaign finance reports for municipal elections are due 30 days before the election.
In 2016, Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough, who was running for his second term, had raised the most money among the 14 council candidates. He had raised $3,020.25.
The 14 candidates combined raised a total of $15,279.
So far this year, Sunseri, Collins and Maceo alone have raised $33,976.
This year might have been a slow one in Galveston politics. Of seven city council positions that could have been contested — six council seats and the mayorship — only three are being contested.
Collins is seeking to unseat Maceo, who was elected in 2016 in District 3, which includes Galveston’s Historic East End neighborhood, as well as Fish Village, downtown and the eastern extremes of Seawall Boulevard. With 30 days until the election, the men have raised comparable amounts of money.
Collins reported receiving $10,060 in contributions, according to the reports. Maceo reported $11,787.
Collins, an East End resident, received a majority of his campaign money from people with interests there. He received a $5,000 donation from Amy Adams Strunk, owner of the Tennessee Titans football team, who also owns two houses in the East End.
Collins said Strunk’s support was based on her belief that he would maintain the city’s historic preservation rules and protect her properties.
“She has two of them, and they’re very large and she has done a tremendous amount of work preserving them,” Collins said. “She perceives my opponent as being anti-historic preservation.”
Collins received two other $1,000 donations from East End property owners. Of the 22 donations Collins listed, 12 came from people with home addresses in the East End Historical District or who own property there, according to Galveston Central Appraisal District records.
Maceo has so far received most of his donations through in-kind contributions from the Galveston Municipal Police Association and the Galveston Firefighter’s Association, which each donated more than $2,000 worth of campaign signs.
In 2016, Maceo spent more than $13,000 to defeat incumbent council member Ralph McMorris in a race that went to a runoff. He said he hasn’t yet made a concerted effort to raise or spend money this year.
“I haven’t even started raising money yet,” Maceo said. “I just haven’t done it.”
Maceo said he planned to focus on raising support from areas outside the historic district, which usually is among the most organized areas in terms of voter turnout during local elections. Maceo said he planned to focus on other areas of the city and on encouraging young people who live on Pelican Island to vote in the city election.
“District 3 has more to it than the historic homes,” he said.
Unlike the District 3 race, the race to raise money in District 6 has so far been one-sided. Sunseri’s challenger in District 6, former city council member Jackie Cole, raised $2,250. Sunseri has raised $12,129. District 6 represents the western end of the island, starting at about 73rd Street.
Sunseri reported receiving more than 40 individual contributions, more than the other two big-money raisers.
Some of those contributions came from non-Galveston residents, including from Texas City Mayor Matt Doyle, and other members of his family, and from Galveston County Sheriff Henry Trochesset, who lives in Santa Fe. Sunseri is related to the Doyle and Trochesset families through marriage.
“I’m blessed to have a lot of family and friends in town who support me and want to see me elected,” Sunseri said.
Election day is May 5. Early voting begins April 23.
Clear Creek divides Galveston and Harris counties and splits the responsibilities of a shared watershed, complicating flood control and leading to disputes about whether both sides are doing their fair share to keep the creek clear of debris.
The Galveston County Consolidated Drainage District clears the western and southern bank of the creek, while the Harris County Flood Control District clears the eastern and northern bank.
Some on the Galveston County side of the creek claim Harris County isn’t doing its share to remove large, woody debris and living riparian vegetation.
“They have done nothing on their side of the creek,” Friendswood Councilman Jim Hill said.
But Harris County officials say they are working to remove debris in Clear Creek, although the work they’re doing might not be apparent. The Harris County Flood Control District has cleared 208 cubic yards of debris of the creek’s watershed since Hurricane Harvey hit in late August, spokesman Rob Lazaro said.
Clearing debris from Clear Creek has long been a focus for Friendswood officials. Friendswood City Council members at an April 2 meeting voted to spend $1 million to clear and de-snag Clear Creek, but the plan had been in the works for years before Harvey inundated the area with more than 50 inches of rain in August.
The $1 million Friendswood is spending will go to the Galveston County Consolidated Drainage District to clear the creek as part of a larger project: the Mud Gully and South Belt Stormwater Detention Basin. The Galveston County Consolidated Drainage District is contributing $2 million to the project that will clear 120 surface acres, according to city documents.
Galveston County allocated $10 million for the project from a 2008 bond issue, County Commissioner Ken Clark said.
“It will lower water levels in Clear Creek as much as a foot in flood events,” Clark said.
Harris County’s involvement, or a perceived lack of involvement, frustrated several Friendswood city council members.
“Doing just one bank of the creek is unsatisfactory,” Mayor pro tem Steve Rockey said.
Friendswood needs to get Harris County’s attention, Councilman Mike Foreman said.
The Harris County Flood Control District wasn’t aware Friendswood officials had such concerns, Lazaro said.
“All the activities we are doing may not be filtering to them,” Lazaro said.
Although the Harris County Flood Control District includes 22 watersheds, it has spent time clearing Clear Creek, moving 208 cubic yards or 840,000 pounds of debris, Lazaro said.
That includes work in Friendswood in Cedar Gully, which feeds into Clear Creek and flows between Shady Oaks Lane and Whittier Oaks, according to a district map. The same map also indicates more planned work in Cedar Gully.
“Our projects are harder to see because we are in the bayous and not in the streets,” Lazaro said.
Representatives from the two districts meet quarterly with other local government officials at Clear Creek Watershed Steering Committee meetings.
The next quarterly meeting is Tuesday, said Joseph Anderson, operations manager at Galveston County Consolidated Drainage District.
“We are always trying to improve flood control,” Anderson said.
Galveston County facilities on more than a half-dozen occasions violated permits by releasing higher than allowable levels of pollution into area waterways during an 18-month period, according to data collected through state and federal agencies.
In late March, two environmental policy groups co-published a report documenting 8,148 incidents of pollution exceeding federal safety levels in U.S. waters between January 2016 and September 2017.
Texas businesses accounted for 938 of those incidents, the most of any state, according to research by Frontier Group and Environment America Research and Policy Center. The state’s ranking is largely related to having a high number of industrial facilities because the state is home to many large cities and the nation’s largest petrochemical and refining industry, according to the study.
In Galveston County, there were eight instances in which facilities reported exceeding their pollutant permit, according to data published by Environment Texas, an Austin-based environmental group.
In the Galveston County incidents, facilities leaked enterococci, a waste product in crude oil refining, and iron into the Texas City ship channel and canals on their properties, according to data published by Environment Texas, which published data about the Texas incidents from the report.
Blanchard Refining Company, a subsidiary of Marathon Petroleum Corp., and the Gulf Coast Authority each had at least one instance in which they released pollutants exceeding their permits.
In one instance, Blanchard Refining Company released enterococci into the ship channel exceeding its permit by 282 percent, according to the data. In another, the amount released exceeded the permit by 136 percent, according to the report.
On one other occasion, the facility had released oil and grease exceeding its permit by 27 percent, according to the data and a compliance history report from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Enterococci bacteria can make people sick with gastrointestinal problems and is one of the primary reasons beach health advisories warn people not to swim in an area, Environment Texas Executive Director Luke Metzger said.
The Gulf Coast Authority, a government waste disposal operation, reported a violation on Aug. 31 when its facility at 3500 Loop 197 in Texas City released iron into the Texas City Ship Channel exceeding the amount allowed in its permit by 27 percent, according to the group’s compiled data and a compliance history report kept by the commission.
The Gulf Coast Authority discharge happened during Hurricane Harvey because of heavy rain, spokesman Keith Hardcastle said.
There was no noticeable affect to the water quality at the canal where it was deposited and no fish kills reported, Hardcastle said.
A spokeswoman for Marathon said the company generally does not comment on operations beyond what is available in public filings with the agency.
The study looked at violations of the Clean Water Act and enforcement of that law by looking at about 18 months of data.
The state’s environmental agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, requires facilities with discharge permits to routinely monitor and report discharges to the agency, commission spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said.
The agency monitors the data and determines facility compliance and when exceedances happen to determine whether there will be a formal enforcement action based on the requirements of the Texas Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, Morrow said.
The system penalizes major facilities when they exceed their monthly average effluent limit of a conventional pollutant by 40 percent or by 20 percent for a toxic pollutant or if there are chronic violations, according to the commission.
“When violations are serious enough to warrant formal enforcement action, the TCEQ is authorized to enforce correction of the violations and to seek penalties to deter future noncompliance,” Morrow said.
The Galveston County permits with violations did not meet the criteria for referral to the Environmental Protection Agency for penalty for the water discharge violations, according to the state’s compliance history reports. The incidents did not meet the state or federal criteria for referral, according to the commission.
The report criticized the state environmental commission for rarely penalizing companies for violating federal clean water laws and polluting rivers, bays and other waterways around Texas.
“Each year, from 2011 to 2017, an average of 27,849 facilities were non-compliant across the U.S., while an average of 13,076 — less than half — faced any EPA or state enforcement action,” the report stated.
In Texas, about half of the major industrial facilities had an instance of illegal water pollution and many had multiple excesses, according to the report.
“About half the facilities in Texas are exceeding their permits,” Metzger said. “We’re concerned that’s the result of lax enforcement by the TCEQ and EPA.”
“What’s particularly disturbing is we still have thousands of miles of rivers and streams that are not fit for basic uses,” Metzger said. “We have waterways that are too polluted and companies are potentially breaking the law and putting even more pollution in them.”
Two weeks after Galveston County Health District officials announced thousands of patients might have been exposed to such infectious diseases as HIV and hepatitis at a dental clinic, the clinic’s new interim director said the facility has made “good progress” toward reopening.
Galveston County Health District CEO Kathy Barroso spent her first week as interim director meeting with staff members and reviewing progress made at clinics in Galveston and Texas City since they were closed in February.
“This week, what I’ve done is basically get up to speed on how things are going in the clinic and figure out where some of the processes are so we can see where any deficiencies aren’t being addressed,” Barroso said. “There are a lot of things that have been done, but there are still a few items that need to be addressed.”
Barroso was named the interim director of the Coastal Health & Wellness clinic March 30, the same day the clinic’s previous executive director and dental director resigned.
Her appointment came more than a month after the clinics — one in Galveston and one in Texas City — were closed when inspectors from the Joint Commission, an accreditation group, identified 11 “threat to life” issues at the Texas City clinic, most of them related to sanitation of equipment and staff training.
Barroso expected her tenure to be temporary, she said in an interview this week. The clinic’s board received permission from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration to take the position, she said.
The administration had ordered the health district and the clinic to separate in 2015. The two entities once were both managed under the purview of the health district, but the administration cited federal rules and ordered a split, Barroso said.
Officials have suggested that the split contributed to a lack of oversight or a drop in standards at the clinic, which last passed a joint commission inspection in 2015.
Although Barroso remained on the Coastal Health & Wellness clinic’s governing board as a non-voting member, and worked in a building connected to the clinic, she said she had no previous day-to-day oversight of the clinic operations.
Barroso has worked for the health district since 1997, and acted as its chief financial officer and chief operating officer before being promoted to chief executive officer in 2016, after the split of the clinic and district operations were ordered.
While as CEO she worked closely with clinic staff on issues related to finances and technology — the two groups still have some regulatory ties — Barroso said she wasn’t aware of sanitation and training problems at the clinic before the inspection raised the issues.
“They really basically operated independently,” Barroso said. “I was not involved in the day-to-day operations of the clinic.”
The dental clinics have not yet reopened, and health officials haven’t said when they would, saying it depends on when they can be inspected again.
“I think it could be very soon,” Barroso said. “I just want to make sure that most to the things are in place that could be in place.”
The district has conducted thousands of blood tests in the past week, and hasn’t announced the discovery of any infections connected to the clinic, officials said. But it could takes months of investigation to connect a positive diagnosis of hepatitis or HIV directly to the clinics.
It’s not yet clear how much the testing and response to the issue would cost, or who would be responsible for paying for it, Barroso said.