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Galveston Mardi Gras hearing draws into a third day of testimony

GALVESTON

City officials, Mardi Gras organizers and a courtroom full of interested spectators spent all day Monday in a hearing that could determine the fate of Mardi Gras, the island’s popular pre-Lenten festival.

Judge Patricia Grady of the 212th District Court is expected Tuesday to hear another full day of testimony on a lawsuit brought by businessman Allen Flores against the city and Yaga’s Entertainment, the company that won the city contract to stage the annual Mardi Gras celebration, and its owner, Mike Dean.

Flores and Dean both own downtown businesses; Flores owns Shark Shack Beach Bar & Grill, 2402 Strand St., and others; and Dean owns Yaga’s Cafe, 2314 Strand St.

At issue is whether the city and Yaga’s have the right to close streets to vehicular traffic and charge pedestrians to travel on them, and whether the city can use hotel occupancy tax revenue for Mardi Gras expenses.

Under state law, the spending of hotel tax money is limited to efforts that bring more overnight visitors to the island.

Mardi Gras is scheduled to run Feb. 14 to Feb. 25.

The lawsuit has been closely followed both by Mardi Gras krewes and many with stakes in other island festivals, which they worry would no longer be feasible if the judge rules for Flores.

Organizers of the Lone Star Rally, Galveston Island Oktoberfest and The Grand 1894 Opera House, which hosts Artoberfest and The Grand Kid’s Festival, have filed to join the lawsuit on behalf of Yaga’s.

Flores argues he sued on behalf of taxpayers, who have to cover Mardi Gras expenses, and residents and business owners whose access and use of their own property is undermined when the roads are closed for the festival. He argues a scaled-down version of Mardi Gras could provide the same benefit at a lower cost and without denying people full use of their own property.

Realtor Manuel Gonzales spent all day listening to the testimony because he wants to know what’s going to happen to the festival, he said.

He can see both sides and wants Mardi Gras to benefit all the businesses in the downtown, he said.

“It just needs to be tweaked,” he said.

Attorneys for the plaintiff and defendants spent much of Monday questioning Dean and city officials about the pros and cons of allowing a Mardi Gras promoter to erect gates and charge entry fees in the island’s downtown.

The gates regulate the flow of people and allow for attendees to be screened for weapons before they enter the downtown area, City Manager Brian Maxwell said.

“It’s purely a public safety issue,” Maxwell said.

The fee is typically applied during 27 hours over the three days of the first festival weekend and 21 hours during the second weekend, according to city records presented Monday.

Last year, the city spent $404,644 on expenses related to Mardi Gras. That’s all paid for with hotel tax revenue, according to city records. Yaga’s paid the city $149,066 in 2019 to offset the cost of city services downtown, according to records.

Legal questions looming around the festival have made members of some krewes, the social clubs that host festival parades and events, nervous.

Mardi Gras, and the traditions surrounding it, are extremely important to Galvestonians, said Eric Gage, public relations director for the Krewe of Gambrinus. Gage watched Monday’s proceedings in the courtroom.

A ruling for Flores would change the Mardi Gras festival, and force the krewes to make many changes, Gage said. But for now, the krewe organizers are planning as always, Gage said.

“We can’t just stop,” Gage said. “We have to continue on.”

The festival is held downtown in conjunction with George Mitchell’s original vision, Dean said.

Mitchell, an oilman and preservationist, revived the then-dormant Mardi Gras festival in 1985 to draw more people downtown.

The effects of changing the festival’s current model are significant, many who fundraise and organize parades said.

The festival brings in money for student organizations and scholarships at Texas A&M University at Galveston, Assistant Vice President for Academic Operations Donna Lang testified at the hearing.

The university hosts a fundraiser during Mardi Gras each year, which usually brings in $60,000, but not having the normal festival would mean going back to the drawing board to raise that much money, Lang said.

“Mardi Gras gives it its draw,” Lang said.

The hearings are scheduled to continue Tuesday.


News
La Marque commits to progress, one step at a time

LA MARQUE

When Tink Jackson came to La Marque eight months ago to take the job of city manager, he committed to addressing longstanding problems such as the city’s aging water infrastructure. No Band-Aid solutions, Jackson told the city council and residents of the town of 15,000 people.

Jackson has moved full speed ahead on his promise, getting the ball rolling on an expanded wastewater treatment plant, rehabilitation of the Gulf Greyhound water tank that serves La Marque and new utility lift station pumps.

Last month, the council approved an ordinance allowing work to move forward with a promise of reimbursement to city coffers once bonds are issued on the public improvement project.

“Work on those projects has already started,” Jackson said.

Jackson also championed improved parks as an economic development tool for a city like La Marque with lots of park acreage and a need to entice new businesses to town. In late 2019, the council approved a request for proposals to hire a consultant who would come in and develop a parks master plan and at Monday’s meeting, approved negotiating terms with Clark Condon, a Houston-based landscape architecture firm.

The cost is $30,000 with half put up by the city and half by the parks department.

Growth and change cost money. In all, the city will issue $20 million in bonds to pay for the infrastructure projects it’s already committed to.

But a possible new municipal complex that would house city hall, municipal court and a new police station is another big ticket item that needs to be figured into the city’s potential debt package before a bond sale moves forward, Jackson said.

He struck the notice of intent to move forward on a bond sale from Monday’s agenda until a price tag for the municipal complex, discussed in December and again on Monday, is known, he said.

“When I bring them a proposal, I want to make sure everything’s in front of them and everything’s in front of city residents,” he said. “I want to give council a full picture of our bonding capacity.”

Discussion of a new municipal facility was proposed at the December meeting by Councilman Keith Bell, who continued to champion the idea at Monday’s meeting, saying La Marque needed to dream big and the idea should at least be realistically assessed and put before residents for a vote.

“Honestly, part of the budget process this year is getting in front of a capital improvement plan,” Jackson said. “We started last year with infrastructure, and this is jumping from phase one to the whole thing, looking at how it would roll into a capital improvement plan.”

Discussion ensued about La Marque’s most critical needs. Councilman Robert Michetich said he thought the need for a new police station was more important than a whole new city complex and Mayor Bobby Hocking said he, too, was concerned most immediately about the need for a better police facility.

Jackson said he’d already consulted with Robert Viera of LNV engineering out of Corpus Christi, who will lay out a preliminary floor plan, showing how much space is needed, to begin understanding how much such an undertaking might cost.

“We’re rejecting something before we even see it,” Bell said, urging council to just hear what Jackson finds out. “Can we see what it would look like before we decide what we want and don’t want?”

“I, too, want to dream and want to see an entire city complex,” Hocking said. “When I walk into that municipal complex in Dickinson, I see no reason a similar-sized city like ours can’t accomplish that.”


Coming Thursday

It’s opening day for local political races. Who’s in and who’s out and who’s still deciding whether to run for city offices?


News
Galveston County approves first mental health court

GALVESTON

People suffering from mental health ailments and arrested for felonies in Galveston County might soon have a path to treatment, rather than punishment.

Galveston County commissioners voted unanimously Monday to approve creation of a mental health court and to fund it with more than $571,000.

The money approved Monday will run the court only for the first year, and the county will have to find other funding in the future, officials said. If the court succeeds, officials hope it will attract federal funds to cover some of the program’s costs.

“We hope it’s successful,” said Galveston County Judge Mark Henry, who has for years tried to establish the specialty court, but was stymied by a lack of funding.

Last year, Henry recruited Wayne Mallia, a former district court judge, to study and propose a structure for the court. With Monday’s vote, Mallia can begin hiring staff and evaluating participants for the program.

The court’s aim is giving people charged with felony crimes, and also diagnosed with mental health issues, the chance to avoid jail and conviction by participating in a supervised diversion program.

If a person participating in the program completes the conditions the new court sets — such as attending therapy and submitting to alcohol and drug testing — he can receive deferred adjudication.

The program is voluntary and meant to provide arrestees with help they would not otherwise receive in the county justice system.

The court plans to enroll up to 30 people into the program at a time, Mallia said. Officials could not say Monday how many people in the jail might qualify for the program.

The program is open to people diagnosed with major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, according to the plan commissioners approved Monday.

It will take a person enrolled in the court at least 18 months to complete the four phases of the program, according to the plan.

The mental health court isn’t necessarily a solution to all of the difficulties people with mental health face in Galveston County. The court, at least at first, will offer mostly outpatient treatment, officials said.

No local hospitals or other facilities provide inpatient beds for people suffering from mental health crises. The county jail has for years served as a kind of surrogate mental health facility.

“You’ll have outpatient treatment,” Mallia said. “As far as inpatient treatment, we’re looking at the same issues anybody else faces.”

The approval was lauded by one local mental health provider as a meaningful step toward addressing mental health issues in the county.

“Mental health courts involve a collaborative, problem-solving model providing participants access to much needed services,” said Melissa Tucker, the CEO of the Gulf Coast Center. “Effective models work to increase public safety while improving the quality of life for those served.”

The Gulf Coast Center is being hired to help staff and manage the program, officials said.

Monday’s vote did not come without some question about the cost to the county. Commissioner Ken Clark questioned whether the cost of the program couldn’t be cut.

“My concern here is that it could appear that we’re building not necessarily a treatment program, which we are, but we’re building a government bureaucracy,” Clark said. “I know that’s not the intent, but I’m just trying to reach out to see if we can get economies of scale.”

The mental health court appears to be more expensive than the county’s two other existing specialty courts — one for drug treatment and another for military veterans, Clark said.

Henry said the treatment of mental health issues and the other courts were “apples and oranges.”

“There’s significant differences,” Henry said. “We’re having to act like a mental health provider, which we’re not.”

The county’s other specialty courts don’t require the kind of specialized services the mental health court will provide, Henry said.

But he and other officials said finding ongoing funding for the court was still a priority.

Although the county plans to fund the court in its first year, the county also will begin to seek federal grant funding for future funding, Henry said.

“They want to see a successful program before they give you grant funding,” Henry said.


News
Trial to begin for accused League City killer, stalker

LEAGUE CITY

The trial of a man accused of stalking his former wife for years before wounding her and riddling her new husband in a burst of gunfire outside their family home in 2017 is set to begin with opening arguments today.

Sayantan Ghose, 43, is charged with murder, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and stalking in connection with the series of incidents that led to the death of Clarence Wayne Harris II, and in the wounding of Amanda Harris, Ghose’s former wife.

Ghose was detained at a border checkpoint near Las Cruces, N.M. on June 29, 2017, a day after the couple was shot outside their home in the 700 block of Mayhill Ridge Lane in the Westover Park subdivision, according to an arrest affidavit.

Border Patrol agents were performing immigration inspections with technology that reads license plates when Ghose pulled up in a 2011 Toyota Corolla, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said.

Amanda Harris told police Ghose had stalked her for years and that she had made many police reports about him, according to an affidavit.

Amanda Harris, who had been divorced from Ghose since 2008, told police she had arrived home with her daughter and the daughter’s friend, both about 11, to find Ghose standing near her front door, according to an affidavit.

Just before the shooting started, Amanda Harris told a 911 dispatcher that both she and her husband were armed with handguns, and that she was conducting a citizen’s arrest. One of the children told police Clarence Harris and Ghose had been on the ground fighting when they arrived at the house.

Clarence Harris was shot about seven times in the body and head, according to an affidavit. Amanda Harris was struck twice, once in an arm and once in a leg, according to the affidavit.

Ghose was seen fleeing the Harris home in the 700 block of Mayhill Ridge Lane in the Westover Park subdivision just after the June 28 shooting, according to the affidavit.

Ghose told investigators he had been assaulted and had been forced to defend himself by shooting, officials said.

Prosecutors initially charged Ghose with murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after the shooting. A grand jury later indicted him in 2018 on one count of stalking, but because that was a grand jury indictment, there is no probable cause affidavit, prosecutors said.

The grand jury indictment accuses Ghose of stalking Amanda Harris from October 2015 to June 2017 on more than one occasion, records show.