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During elections, cities walk fine lines with signs

FRIENDSWOOD

In the world of local elections, campaign signs are sacred and hated. They often are one of the biggest expenses a candidate will make, and sometimes are the targets of tampering by competing factions.

For local cities, however, a political sign can also be a landmine.

In the past week, Friendswood city employees removed more than 90 political signs from city rights of way — all belonging to a single candidate, incumbent Councilman Carl Gustafson, who is running for re-election.

Gustafson said the cleanup campaign was spurred by complaints from his political opponents in the election, and called it a “petty” distraction from election issues.

“I’d rather be talking about the issues facing our fine city and how we’re going to continue to move forward on addressing our drainage and flood mitigation, supporting our police and fire departments, and continuing the robust economic development we are experiencing,” he said in a statement to The Daily News.

Indeed, the city’s investigation and roundup of Gustafson’s signs was set off by one of his longtime political rivals, Janis Lowe.

Lowe, a former city councilwoman, was among a group of county Republicans who tried to oust Gustafson from his former position as chairman of the Galveston County Republican Party in 2017. The effort failed, though Gustafson resigned in 2018 for personal reasons.

Lowe said she was motivated by a passion for the city’s rules when she reported Gustafson’s signs.

“I think everybody should abide by all the laws we have in place, and nobody is above the law,” Lowe said.

The Friendswood incident highlights the unexpectedly fraught issue that local officials face during the brief period when campaign signs sprout along local streets: do you pick up a sign, in the name of city standards, or do you let it be, lest it be thought that city workers are trying to influence an election.

In cities that are having elections this year, the rules do vary.

In Dickinson, caution about conflicts of interests and tampering allegations has led administrators to instruct city employees not to touch campaign signs, and to leave enforcement up to the Texas Department of Transportation, City Secretary Alun Thomas said.

“We don’t intervene directly,” Thomas said. “What we’ll do is encourage the complainant to either contact the candidate, or to contact TxDOT or the Texas Ethics Commission, who are the ones that would take care of that. We try to stay out of it.”

Thomas would move a sign that’s an egregious violation, say one that’s pasted on the front of city hall, but otherwise, he’s hands off, he said.

The transportation department’s rules state it’s legal to post signs on public land, but they cannot be placed in rights of way or in medians.

Other cities don’t take quite the same hands-off approach. While Dickinson goes by the state’s rules, which apply to signs along state highways, the city of Friendswood, where Gustafson’s signs were removed, has rules that apply specifically to political signs around the city.

The rules are fairly lenient, Friendswood City Secretary Melinda Welsh said. Candidates who are spotted with signs in the right of way are given 10 days to move their signs before the city acts, Welsh said.

During election seasons, Welsh is the one who fields complaints about campaign signs, and they come during “every single solitary one,” she said.

“It’s usually one of my greatest sources of communication with the candidates and some of their opponents,” Welsh said. “I’ll just leave it at that.”

When the city does act and sends code enforcement officers to pull up campaign signs, candidates are allowed to retrieve the removed signs and place them elsewhere, Welsh said.

“We, historically, have always applied the rules of the sign ordinance liberally,” Welsh said.

In Santa Fe, the candidates are advised to look at utility poles when placing campaign signs, said City Secretary Janet Davis. If a pole is between a sign and the street, the sign can stay. If the sign nearer to the street, then it’s likely in the right of way.

“It gives you a good gauge, usually,” she said.

As in Friendswood, Santa Fe gives warnings to candidates who are in violation of the rules. Unlike Friendswood, the city isn’t lenient if signs run afoul of the rules on a repeated basis, Davis said.

“We’d go get it and take it away,” Davis said. “If I already gave them a chance to move it, and they didn’t, or if they put it right back, they wouldn’t get it back.”

Early voting for this year’s local elections begins on Monday. Election Day is May 4.

All political signs must be down within 10 days of the last vote being cast.


News
Galveston code enforcement officers to wear body cameras

GALVESTON

Property owners aren’t always cheerful when inspectors issue citations for city code violations.

In fact, some can get confrontational.

In line with a growing national trend of recording encounters between government employees and the public, Galveston’s code enforcement office this month bought body cameras for five city marshals.

Only the sworn peace officers in the code enforcement division will use the body cameras, which cost $9,650 for five cameras and for data storage, city spokeswoman Marissa Barnett said.

“The city’s goal is for all sworn peace officers to have body cameras,” Barnett said.

The body-worn cameras will record the interactions marshals have with the public and will follow police officer standards of archiving footage and using footage to resolve disputes about what occurred during an encounter with the public, City Marshal Michael Gray said.

Gray and the two deputy marshals on staff, who are sworn peace officers, will use the cameras when they respond to calls, Gray said.

The city has two open deputy marshal positions. The two deputy marshals will use the body cameras when they’re hired, Gray said.

“A sworn peace officer can detain and they do have arrest powers and they can carry a gun,” Gray said. “This frees up the Galveston police department from having to assist code enforcement in many situations where we can handle it.”

In March, the city completed 503 code enforcement investigations carried out by Gray, the deputy marshals and four other code enforcement officers, who won’t be using the new camera equipment, Barnett said.

The city marshal office is fairly new. The city appointed Gray, a previous Galveston police officer, as the head of the department in 2017, after the city marshal position had remained vacant for several years.

The department’s adoption of the technology follows a national trend, Gray said.

“Most agencies across the country are going to the body cameras, Gray said.

Many cities also are equipping employees who aren’t peace officers with cameras, said Rita Watkins, executive director of the Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas.

“It boils down to officers or civilians having these cameras to offset any dispute or argument that they could possibly have with a civilian,” Watkins said.

She expects even more cities to equip their employees with cameras to ensure they accurately record encounters with the public, she said.

“I think it goes back to being in a situation where there is the potential for a dispute or a confrontation,” Watkins said. “That camera captures your response.”

Introducing the cameras can sometimes cause concern among residents worried about privacy, but the equipment is meant as a protective measure, Watkins said.

The most expensive part of using the cameras isn’t the equipment itself, but the computer memory necessary to store hours of video recording, she said.

The city stores the data in the cloud — computer-speak for remote servers that can be accessed online. Popular services include Dropbox, Google Drive and Apple’s iCloud.

The code enforcement department has its eyes on other equipment to help deputies and officers but hasn’t yet determined priorities, Gray said.


News
Galveston County still growing, but not as quickly

GALVESTON

Galveston County’s population grew by more than 45,000 people between 2010 and 2018, according to new population estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau this week.

The county's estimated population in 2018 was 337,890. In 2010, it was 292,476, according to the census bureau.

The county’s population has increased every year since the 2010 Census, at least according to the bureau’s estimates. However, in recent years, the year-to-year rate of growth to the county has slowed.

The county added 3,586 residents from 2017 to 2018, a 1.1 percent increase, according to the release. In each of the six years before 2018, the county’s population had increased by at least 5,000 residents, according to the census bureau’s estimates.

The new estimates are not an exact count of the population. Rather they’re based on statistical data, such as birth and death records and school enrollments. The next full census will be completed in 2020.

Between 2014 and 2016, the county’s population increased by nearly 5 percent. From 2016 to 2018, the growth was 2.8 percent.

The new numbers reflect the census bureau’s estimates the county’s population as of July 1, 2018, meaning these are among the first numbers to reflect the demographic consequences of Hurricane Harvey, which struck the county in August 2017.

A hurricane-inflicted hit to local populations would not be unexpected. As many as 20,000 homes in the county were damaged by the storm and its floods and housing recovery is in many ways still just beginning.

Based on the 2018 estimates, Galveston County is the 17th most populous county in Texas, the same as it was in 2010. Bell County, north of Austin, is the next most populous county in the state, with 355,642 residents in 2018.

Galveston County’s population growth since 2010 is the 14th highest growth rate in the state.

The census bureau plans to release population estimates for individual cities in coming months. Canvassing for the 2020 Census is scheduled to begin in August 2019.


Coming Sunday

Growing in popularity nationwide, recreational ax throwing comes to League City.


News
Galveston County gives funding for Harris County creek project

HARRIS COUNTY

Galveston County officials have contributed about $10 million to a project to expand a detention pond in Harris County that experts hope might reduce flooding along Clear Creek in both counties.

Engineers are designing Phase 3 of the South Belt Stormwater Detention Basin project, which will eventually allow it to store up to 505 million gallons of storm water, officials with the Harris County Flood Control District said this week.

“This benefits citizens in Galveston County because the peak rainfall runoff is detained in Harris County prior to release into Clear Creek,” said Tyler Drummond, chief of staff for County Judge Mark Henry.

But, in the months since Hurricane Harvey dropped more than 50 inches of rain on some parts of Galveston County and flooded more than 20,000 homes, some local residents and officials have questioned the benefits of upstream work on Clear Creek.

League City Mayor Pat Hallisey, for instance, has asked for research about what developments upstream might do to drainage downstream.

Construction on the project, which is entering its final phase, began in 2014 with the initial excavation of a basin on a 174-acre site roughly between Scarsdale Boulevard and Dixie Farm Road on the north and south sides, and Beamer Road and Blackhawk Boulevard on the east and west sides.

The project, from its inception, was a joint venture with Galveston County contributing about $10 million, about a third of the project’s anticipated total $35 million cost, Drummond said.

Crews completed the first phase of construction in 2018 and began the second phase, which expanded the basin south and west of its initial location, in November 2016, officials said.

Clear Creek drains parts of Fort Bend, Brazoria, Harris and Galveston counties, making drainage improvements a regional effort, officials have said.

Clear Creek divides Harris and Galveston counties, but the watershed drains from both sides.

The detention basin is just one of several planned projects for the northern reaches of the creek. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also is working on a planned $295 million flood control project that could take as many as 10 years to complete.