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Perennial code enforcement debate part of Galveston council races
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GALVESTON

Enforcement of city codes about everything from maintenance of structures, lawns and landscaping, loud noises, signs and parking, to name a few, is a perennial source of complaint and debate, which tends to oscillate between calls for more of it and calls for less of it.

Such is the case now, near the end of an unprecedentedly long city council campaign season, as some call for reform of the City Marshal’s Office and a general overhaul of Galveston’s code enforcement.

Reformers argue the department’s enforcement is inconsistent and overbearing, while others assert a strong code enforcement division is essential to preserving quality of life for residents.

Roger “Bo” Quiroga cites the department as an issue in the campaign to fill the spot vacated by former Mayor Jim Yarbrough.

Quiroga and Mayor pro tem Craig Brown are headed for a Dec. 15 runoff election for the mayor’s office.

“That department has been the focus of more complaints than any other department at the city,” Quiroga said, adding that he has a few concerns about the marshal’s department.

“The main one is going into businesses and trying to tell businesses how to operate their business,” Quiroga said.

Galveston city council District 5 candidate Beau Rawlins recently took to social media to decry a ticket he got when parking in a loading zone.

But people want, need and expect the city to enforce its rules, City Marshal Butch Stroud said.

The 17-person city marshal’s department is tasked with enforcing parking regulations and city codes. The formal department was reformed in 2017 and employs six certified peace officers, according to the city. The department has handled more than 4,000 cases so far in 2020, according to city records.

Before 2017, code enforcement had been handled by police.

MIXED REVIEWS

Most of the department’s time is spent responding to complaints, including about buildings in disrepair, junk cars and tall grass, Stroud said.

Island resident John Bostock said he has never had a good experience with the marshals.

“They overstep their powers,” Bostock said.

Bostock, who’s in a band, asserts the marshals enforce ordinances at some bars but not others.

“They are selective in their enforcement,” he said.

Kempner Park area resident Kara Fahringer also argues enforcement isn’t consistent.

Fahringer has gotten tickets for occasionally parking on the sidewalk in her neighborhood.

“I know it is illegal and I paid the ticket,” Fahringer said. “My neighbors do it every day.”

But she has never seen her neighbors get tickets, she said.

It can be a problem for businesses, too.

Tom Schwenk, owner of Tom’s Galveston Real Estate, which operates some downtown offices, also complained about uneven enforcement.

“We pay a lot of tickets every year,” Schwenk said. “A lot of them were justified, but a lot of them weren’t.”

Schwenk’s employees come and go frequently during the day and often get tickets in two-hour parking spots after they’d left and returned within the same two-hour period, he said.

Schwenk wants the city to put more information on parking signs explaining the computer system so people know how to park, he said.

Stroud insists the department is equitable and enforces codes uniformly.

Parking enforcement relies on a computer system that reads license plates in an entire block to determine how long a vehicle has been parked, he said.

“It takes the human element out of it,” Stroud said. “Everyone in the nation uses this type of a system.”

People get ticketed for over-parking even if they move cars from one side of the block to the other because the computer reads an entire block at once, Stroud said.

People also have complained about the marshals blocking traffic lanes on Seawall Boulevard while they issue parking citations.

Stroud said he sympathizes with inconvenienced drivers, but the marshals don’t have any good options.

The equipment marshals use to read license plates can’t be strapped to a bike or a Segway, as some critics have suggested, he said.

“We are exploring other options,” Stroud said.

The marshals have to interact with business operators to enforce right-of-way violations, historic architecture ordinances and emergency COVID-19 orders related to electronic gaming and mask rules, Stroud said.

“There were some issues where we had to frequent businesses on a regular basis to get them to come into compliance,” Stroud said. “I think it was a lot of pushback because they didn’t want to adhere to the new rules. We don’t have the issues as often.”

TIME TO EVALUATE?

Brown argues the department is necessary to uphold city codes.

Marshals don’t belong in the police department because that’s not the best use of police time, Brown said. The city needs more marshals, and evaluating the department is probably a fair thing to do, he said.

Brown said he hears complaints about the department, but he also hears praise for it.

“Overall, I don’t see the city marshals overstepping and overreaching too much,” Brown said.

But Quiroga proposed cutting the city marshal’s department and shifting code enforcement to the planning department.

“We just don’t need as many of them,” Quiroga said.

People complain about the department, but cities need code enforcement, Stroud said.

A city without a marshal’s department would be one where people could let junk cars sit and where other city codes could be easily violated, he said.

“If we weren’t there to keep on top of them and keep them doing the right thing, the neighborhoods would look a lot worse,” Stroud said.

He understands that people don’t always agree with the marshals.

“Whenever you’re telling someone what they can and can’t do, you’re going to find a lot of people that don’t like that,” Stroud said. “I don’t let that hinder me in how we run the marshal’s office.”


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Galveston mayoral candidate says he wouldn't be quick to fire staff

GALVESTON

Despite some rumors that Roger “Bo” Quiroga would purge city hall if elected mayor, the candidate said recently he would give the city administration time to perform before making changes.

Either way, City Manager Brian Maxwell said he’s not worried about job security and that he’ll continue working as normal.

Quiroga, who was mayor from 1998 to 2004, has vowed that, if elected, he would overhaul city hall to make it fairer, more equitable and more cost-efficient.

Quiroga and Mayor pro tem Craig Brown, who is acting as mayor, are in a runoff race scheduled for voting Dec. 15.

The city manager position is one of the few that city council has direct hiring and firing power over, including the city secretary and city attorney.

Quiroga said he would want to investigate certain city departments before he made any staffing changes, he said.

“I don’t have anything specific right now, but I really want to take a look at bond money on 45th Street,” Quiroga said.

The $10 million 45th Street road project has drawn criticism from residents and businesses about the timeliness and inconvenience of the construction.

“If Brian can’t get along with the people on city council, then there’s really an opportunity to make a change because you’ve really got to make sure everybody’s on the same page,” Quiroga said.

Maxwell isn’t concerned about his position, despite the possibility of a new council, he said.

“I come to work every day,” Maxwell said. “I do a good job and I’m going to do what’s right for the city of Galveston. If they want to go a different direction, that’s understandable. That happens. That’s not going to change how I do business.”

Maxwell has been city manager since 2014, the same year former Mayor Jim Yarbrough was elected.

Quiroga points out it would take four votes from the seven-person council to fire a city manager.

“When you try to clean up a business, you’ve got to have everything on the table,” Quiroga said.

Quiroga during his campaign has advocated to clean up city hall.

“The morale at the city is the worst I’ve ever seen,” Quiroga said. There’s a lot of discontent with employees.”

Maxwell didn’t know about any discontent and urged people to bring their concerns to him, he said.

“It’s my goal to stay out of these elections,” Maxwell said. “My job is to only present the facts.”


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Superintendent finalist speaks to criticism, shares vision for Clear Creek

LEAGUE CITY

The sole finalist for the Clear Creek Independent School District superintendent position met with parents, students and community members this week, sharing his vision for the district and explaining that Texas is not Virginia and they shouldn’t expect him to bring the same policies.

“The bottom line is that I was hired as a leader to work with the board and this community,” Eric Williams told The Daily News. “I’m not coming in and bringing a particular program.”

Williams, in a wide-ranging interview, addressed the issues during his time as superintendent at Loudoun County Public School District in northern Virginia that have drawn criticism, including race relations and reopening during the pandemic. And he praised Clear Creek for its innovative approach to education.

“I’m attracted to the academic excellence of the district and the emphasis on continuous improvement,” he said. “And the size is perfect.”

Trustees in a 7-0 vote on Nov. 9 named Williams the sole finalist for the Clear Creek job, describing the veteran educator as a standout for the position because of his kindness and statistics-based approach to education while leading the 83,000-student district in northern Virginia.

But almost immediately, residents in Galveston County and Virginia took to social media to criticize the district’s choice, emphasizing in particular Williams’ handling of reopening during the coronavirus pandemic and his decision in 2019 to hire a firm to assess the racial well-being in the Virginia district, with some critics likening that approach to Marxist social engineering.

Some also criticized him as an out-of-state candidate without a knowledge of Texas.

Trustees have roundly rejected those concerns, urging residents to give the man a chance.

Williams this week explained he was born in Waco and moved around as a child because his father was in the military, he said.

And, after being a superintendent in a district of 12,000 students and one of 83,000 students, Clear Creeks’ 40,000 or so students is about the perfect size, Williams said.

ADDRESSING RUMORS

The veteran educator told The Daily News he had no intention to shut down schools in Clear Creek once he comes on board.

“CCISD does not have any plans to close schools, subject of course to any directives from health officials or the governor,” he said. “Any decision like that is based on what’s happening locally. So, the rumors that I’d be coming in and shutting down schools are not accurate.”

Williams also rebuked the argument he would introduce critical race theory, explaining that he never instituted that program in Virginia and that Texas is a different place anyway.

It is not clear what, exactly, critics mean when they refer to critical race theory. According to Britannica.com:

“Critical race theory, the view that the law and legal institutions are inherently racist and that race itself, instead of being biologically grounded and natural, is a socially constructed concept that is used by white people to further their economic and political interests at the expense of people of color. According to critical race theory, racial inequality emerges from the social, economic, and legal differences that white people create between ‘races’ to maintain elite white interests in labor markets and politics, giving rise to poverty and criminality in many minority communities.”

“I’ve heard the term ‘critical race theory’ more times since being named sole finalist than in my entire life,” he said.

The state of Virginia did not integrate schools until the late 1960s, after two court orders, Williams said. And during several recent Martin Luther King Jr. holidays, some families in the district received Ku Klux Klan recruitment fliers on their doorsteps.

Because of incidents like that, Williams has worked in Loudoun County to promote equity and inclusivity, he said.

Williams also provided district teachers links to free, state materials on the subject that they had the option to use. Critics, however, have misinterpreted that as Williams endorsing those materials, he said.

Ultimately, however, Texas is not Virginia, he said.

“I’m excited about the first 90 days from the start of being superintendent,” he said. “I would focus on listening and learning from people. That’s important to better understand the strengths and aspirations of the district.”

That would involve visits to every school and a series of listen-and-learn sessions with community members and staff, he said.

Part of the reason Clear Creek is the ideal size is because it’s small enough to allow for individual attention while also big enough to require more strategic thinking and capacity building, he said.

Williams, who would be replacing longtime Superintendent Greg Smith, also has experience replacing beloved district figures, he said.

“The first I followed served about 17 years and the second about 13,” he said. “In each district, the approach was the same I’d take here.”

In 2014, Williams was named superintendent of the Loudoun County Public School District, which includes more than 94 schools in northern Virginia. He had served as the superintendent of York County, Virginia, and was a superintendent and principal in Naples, Florida, before that.

The final vote for a Clear Creek superintendent will take place Dec. 1 during a special meeting, officials said.


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Safety, not shenanigans, left church off island polling site list, officials say

GALVESTON

Moody Methodist Church is one of the city’s most popular voting locations.

But for a short time this week, the church appeared set to sit out the Dec. 15 election.

On Tuesday, the Galveston City Council approved a list of voting locations and the church wasn’t among them.

The church’s absence caused mayoral candidate Roger “Bo” Quiroga to cast suspicions at his opponent, acting Mayor Craig Brown, and imply that the church’s absence would put him at a disadvantage in the race. The accusations, in turn, led Brown to accuse Quiroga of spreading misinformation about the situation, even after the church was added back into the city’s voting plans.

On Friday, the county’s top election official said it wasn’t political conspiracy that caused the confusion, but rather concerns about COVID-19.

Moody Methodist Church, 2803 53rd St., generally is one of the more popular polling locations on the island, in part because of its central location with a big parking lot in a residential neighborhood, officials said.

It has been used as a voting location in Galveston since at least 2010 and was used as both an early voting location and an Election Day polling place in both the primary election and general election this year.

But on Tuesday, the Galveston City Council approved an ordinance setting the polling sites for the runoff election, with five designated polling locations on the island. Brown at the meeting said the Moody Methodist church “was not available.”

Because only one of the five locations — a fire station on the West End — was west of 61st Street, the council asked City Secretary Janelle Williams to explore adding another polling place if the city was still able.

On Wednesday, Quiroga sent a message to supporters complaining about the council’s actions and saying that, thanks to his campaign’s efforts, the church was added back to the list.

In the email, Quiroga said Brown was “fine with having only one polling place for the West End. “

On Friday, Quiroga said he was suspicious of the absence of the church on the list and said Brown should have consulted with his campaign before signing off on the voting locations.

“I don’t want to accuse anybody of anything, but the mayor pro tem had to sign off on it,” Quiroga said. “That makes it suspicious. That’s why we got on the phone and worked it real hard to see what the deal was because that was a total shock and surprise to us. Nobody asked us anything about polling places. It just didn’t look good.”

There was some political strategy behind Quiroga’s criticism.

During November’s general election, Quiroga drew strong support from voters from neighborhoods between 74th Street and 40th Street.

While Brown and Quiroga were separated by less than 200 votes in areas outside that precinct, Quiroga earned 1,200 more votes than Brown inside of it.

By not having the church as a polling place, Quiroga suggested he could lose out on some of those votes.

“That’s one of our strongholds,” Quiroga said. “It just didn’t make any sense to us why the city wouldn’t continue to have it there.”

Brown on Thursday accused Quiroga of spreading misinformation and said he had no role in choosing the voting locations.

“There wasn’t some kind of conspiracy at all,” Brown said.

He voted to approve the list that was suggested by the county and said it was the county’s mistake not to include the location.

“I took the county at their word that Moody Methodist Church did not want to do this,” Brown said. “As soon as I heard that the county would put it back on, I said put it back on.”

Galveston County Clerk Dwight Sullivan on Friday confirmed that it was his office’s suggestion to leave the church off the city’s list of potential runoff sites. He rejected any suggestion that the locations were caused by political influence.

“That’s not true at all,” Sullivan said. His office was “trying to respect the wishes of the facility,” he said

The county was hoping to avoid using churches and other private property during the runoff because private locations might have requirements for people to wear face masks while on the property, Sullivan said.

Such requirements conflict with Gov. Greg Abbott and Galveston County Judge Mark Henry’s executive orders on face masks, which allow people to vote without wearing a mask. Poll workers who attempt to make people wear masks are subject to fines, according to Henry’s orders.

The county was trying to avoid conflicting rules by not using the location or other churches, Sullivan said. After the complaints arose, Sullivan said he spoke with church officials and confirmed they were willing to have the church be used as a voting site.

He urged people who do choose to vote at the church to respect its rules regarding masks.

While Quiroga on Friday took credit for getting the county to add the church back on to the list of polling places, Brown said he wasn’t aware of what changed at the county to make the church available. He said he was happy to sign the order to add the church back onto the list.

He wasn’t concerned about the polling locations being in a place where Quiroga received more votes.

“I didn’t even think about that,” Brown said. “The important thing is getting people out to vote.”

Early voting begins Nov. 30. Election day is Dec. 15.


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League City mayor moved into intensive care with COVID

LEAGUE CITY

Mayor Pat Hallisey has been moved to intensive care as he continues his battle with coronavirus. Hallisey’s wife, Janice Hallisey, also has tested positive for the virus, officials with the city confirmed Friday.

Pat Hallisey on Wednesday morning was in good spirits but receiving oxygen and steroids to treat the virus, said Sarah Greer Osborne, spokeswoman for League City.

Just a few hours later, city officials learned doctors were moving him to an intensive care unit in the Texas Medical Center.

Leaders such as U.S. Rep. Randy Weber and others took to social media to ask for prayers and good thoughts for Hallisey and his wife as the two continued their struggle against the virus.

“If you’re a believer in the power of prayer, please pray for Pat right now, please,” Janice Hallisey wrote on Facebook Friday. “I don’t need responses, he needs powerful prayers.”

Hallisey felt ill Monday and went to Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston to be tested for COVID-19, he told The Daily News on Tuesday.

Doctors confirmed later that day that Hallisey tested positive for the virus, he said.

Hallisey was present at a council meeting Nov. 10 and attended a Veterans Day celebration Nov. 11 and an event at the College of the Mainland’s League City campus Nov. 12.

Hallisey is the first Galveston County elected official to publicly confirm he’d tested positive for the virus.

Hallisey was named the 2018 Galveston County Daily News Citizen of the Year for his efforts after Hurricane Harvey in late August 2017. He encouraged and energized residents after Harvey dumped more than 50 inches of rain on some parts of the county, flooding more than 20,000 homes.

In October 2017, Hallisey had a heart attack before a city council meeting. In the touch-and-go days that followed, doctors amputated his left leg.

Janice Hallisey is in isolation at their League City home, Greer Osborne said.