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Jury tampering concern raised before venue change

GALVESTON

The day after arguing in court that his client’s trial should be moved to another county, the lawyer representing accused Santa Fe High School shooter Dimitrios Pagourtzis alerted a judge about comments made by a victim’s husband, arguing they threatened to contaminate jury pools wherever the trial is held.

Citing comments made to The Houston Chronicle on Feb. 25 by Scot Rice, the husband of shooting survivor Flo Rice, defense attorney Nick Poehl asked Judge John Ellisor to review the statements and, if necessary, take action in response to them.

“No matter where you go, they move this trial, we’re gonna be there, and we’re gonna be on the media there and the jury pool’s gonna be tainted there because we’re not gonna let it go,” Rice said, according to the Chronicle.

Ellisor on Feb. 27, a day after Poehl filed his motion, decided to move the trial.

Poehl called Rice’s statements a threat to contaminate potential jury pools and to deny Pagourtzis the right to a fair trial.

“I viewed the statement as a dangerous statement,” Poehl said. “I don’t know that he really meant it in the way that he said it, but if he did, it’s obviously pretty problematic.”

Pagourtzis is charged with capital murder of multiple people and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. He was arrested and charged on May 18, 2018 after 10 people were killed and 14 others injured inside Santa Fe High School, and has been held at the Galveston County Jail without bond since then, according to county jail records.

Last week, prosecutors and defense attorneys presented arguments to Ellisor about whether Pagourtzis’ trial should stay in Galveston County. Poehl argued that the attention around the shooting had created an atmosphere in which Pagourtzis could not receive a fair trial. He pointed to comments made by people, including Rice, in news stories and on local social media pages as evidence of bias among county residents.

Rice said Monday he did not mean his comments as a threat, but rather as an observation about how media coverage of the case will follow Pagourtzis, no matter where the trial is.

“Wherever the trial is going to go, we’re going to be there,” Rice said. “I’m sure there will be local news coverage there, and this is not something that’s just going to be in the Galveston paper. Potential jurists are going to see it in the media there.”

Rice did not intend to interfere with the trial, he said.

“There’s no plan to do anything to harm the case,” he said.

Poehl asked Ellisor to take notice of the statement and to take “any and all” actions necessary to protect Pagourtzis’ rights, though as of Monday, neither Poehl nor Rice had heard anything from Ellisor.

“I think that changing the venue has hopefully cured the problem,” Poehl said.

While Ellisor has said Pagourtzis’ trial will be moved out of Galveston County, he hasn’t yet decided where the case will be moved to. An announcement about the choice of venue isn’t scheduled until May.

Among other things, Ellisor must find a court in another jurisdiction that can accommodate a high-profile trial that could take four to six weeks to complete.


News
centerpiece
With school soon to open, residents worry about League City Parkway

LEAGUE CITY

Florence Campbell Elementary School will open in August and several residents in a nearby subdivision are worried increased traffic will cause a bottleneck along League City Parkway.

To make matters worse, the city has no immediate plans to expand the parkway section between Misty Trails Lane and Maple Leaf Drive from two lanes to four lanes, said Diane Turski, president of the Westover Park homeowners association.

“There will be many, many more cars, school buses, etc. on this stretch of road,” Turski said. “This stretch is only two lanes and has become a dangerous bottleneck.”

Two lanes won’t be enough room to accommodate all the drivers using the road, said Brian Worrell, another resident of the neighborhood.

Expanding League City Parkway in the Westover Park section is important to city administrators, but other projects have been more pressing, City Manager John Baumgartner said.

“League City Parkway, with the exception of this one section, is four lanes,” Baumgartner said. “We looked at funding opportunities a year or two ago when we submitted a long list of projects to the county. But this did not make the initial cut.”

For instance, the city has budgeted about $72 million in a May bond referendum for various street and traffic projects, such as reconstructing Grissom Road and Calder Road between Ervin Street to Cross Colony Drive, among others.

Expanding League City Parkway between Misty Trails Lane and Maple Leaf Drive would cost between $1.5 million to $2 million, said Sarah Greer Osborne, spokeswoman for the city.

While the city doesn’t have the project listed on its five-year capital improvement plan or have a definite way to fund it, that doesn’t constrain the city from pushing up the timetable if it becomes necessary, Baumgartner said.

The project itself wouldn’t be tremendously difficult, as the city already owns the necessary rights of way and already has the proper storm sewer in place, Baumgartner said.

City officials can add projects to the five-year capital improvement plan or annual budget at any time, with the council’s approval, said Angie Steelman, the city’s director of budget and project management. The only stipulation is that the city can’t spend money on a project that isn’t currently on the annual budget.

“It’s a great idea and a project we are interested in moving forward with,” Baumgartner said. “We just have to fit it in with our other priorities.”

Some options might include using funds left over from other projects to pay for expanding the parkway, Baumgartner said.

Maybe the city could also extend a nearby tax increment reinvestment zone to help fund the project, Turski suggested.

“It is an important part of the mobility plan and this section needs to be finished ASAP,” Turski said.

The $42 million Florence Campbell Elementary School, which is named after the mother of developer Travis Campbell, who donated the land, will be Clear Creek Independent School District’s 27th elementary school. The 1,000-student capacity elementary school is meant to relieve overcrowding in some of the district’s schools and accommodate a rapidly-growing west side of town.

The district recently approved zoning changes in anticipation of the school’s August opening.

Only about 52 percent of League City is developed, most of it to the east of Interstate 45, officials said. Projections show that, once fully developed, the city’s population could rise above 200,000, officials said.


Coming Thursday

County leaders lobby in Austin this week, but what does a legislative win really look like?


News
City of Galveston could start charging more for some parks fees

GALVESTON

A need for more money for programming and maintenance could mean new rental or admission fees at some city parks.

City parks and recreation staff members propose raising rental rates for the Menard Park band shell, increasing baseball field rental fees for some users and charging adults a $25 annual fee to enter McGuire-Dent Recreation Center, Director of Parks and Recreation Mario Rabago said.

“We’re a little behind on all our maintenance to the parks, so we’ve got quite a bit of catching up to do,” Rabago said.

Some of the money would pay for facility maintenance and some would go toward youth and senior programming, such as an archery program, that needs funding, Rabago said.

“They’re in the hopper, just ready to go,” Rabago said.

About 1,400 youth attendees and 5,000 adults visit McGuire-Dent, 2222 28th St., every month, according to reports.

A $25 annual fee wouldn’t be a problem, but she wants a nicer facility for that, resident Vanessa Sickler said.

“I wouldn’t mind paying for the gym if kids weren’t interrupting me,” Sickler said.

She doesn’t use the gym much during the winter, Sickler, who stood bundled up in the dog park outside McGuire-Dent Monday afternoon, said.

But during the summer, she likes to focus on her fitness, she said.

The city budgeted about $2.99 million for parks and recreation spending, about 6 percent of the general fund budget, in fiscal year 2019, according to city budget. Some additional funding comes from the city Industrial Development Corp., which can be spent on capital repairs and enhancements, Rabago said.

Park equipment isn’t easy to replace or maintain and there are few places in the general fund to pull from, City Manager Brian Maxwell said.

“Galveston’s always been the outlier,” Maxwell said. “We’ve always tried to do it free. But that day’s coming to an end, especially if we want to maintain quality.”

The city expects to bring in about $6,000 to $7,000 more each year at McGuire-Dent alone if the Galveston City Council approves the fees, Rabago said. It’s hard for staff to predict how much they’ll get from other programs, such as Lasker Park Community Pool birthday party rentals, he said.

“I would say that $25 a year is not a lot,” District 5 Councilman John Paul Listowski said.

It isn’t a lot, Rhonda Ragoni agreed.

She works out at the gym five days a week, she said. Even on a chilly Monday afternoon, she’s at McGuire-Dent lifting weights.

“That’s not bad,” Ragoni said. “That’d be well worth it.”

If the city starting charging, Ragoni hopes the gym will get a few more machines and a boxing program for kids, she said.

Aaron Rotkowski was surprised the gym was free to begin with, he said.

“I’d rather it be free, but I wouldn’t mind,” Rotkowski said.

He comes to McGuire-Dent regularly for the indoor basketball court and to use the workout machines, he said.

“If that made a difference for them, I wouldn’t have a huge problem with it,” Rotkowski said.

The city should look into offering that charge on a sliding scale for people who can’t afford the fee, District 6 Councilwoman Jackie Cole said.

“It’s about being able to provide physical fitness activities to people who might not otherwise be able to afford,” Cole said.

District 1 Councilwoman Amy Bly agreed that people shouldn’t have to pay for their physical fitness, she said.

“I have a real issue with charging people to go workout,” Bly said.

A city-produced comparison shows adult annual fees between $95 and $125 in other county recreation centers, according to staff reports.

The parks department plans to bring the proposed rates to city council for a vote later this month, Rabago said.


News
Flu claims life of 6-year-old girl in Galveston County

GALVESTON

A 6-year-old girl being treated at a hospital in Galveston County died last month after contracting the flu virus, the Galveston County Health District announced Monday.

Her death was the first confirmed flu-related death of the flu season, the district said.

There have been more than 1,900 reported flu cases in the county since October 2018, according to the health district.

The health district did not identify the girl by name or say where she was living when she contracted the flu. The girl was not from the United States and had been hospitalized since October 2018, the district said.

A health district spokeswoman did not know why the girl was originally hospitalized.

The girl first developed flu symptoms on Feb. 2 and was tested on Feb. 3, the health district said. She had not been vaccinated for the flu, the health district said. All of the hospital’s staff had been vaccinated, the health district said.

The health district is investigating how the girl contracted the flu while in the hospital, district spokeswoman Ashley Tompkins said.

Flu season in Texas began on Sept. 30, 2018, and flu activity remains high across the state, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

There have been 81,775 cases of flu reported across Texas so far this season, according to the state health department. At least five other children in Texas have died in flu-related deaths this year, according to the health department.

The girl’s death is the first flu-related child death in Galveston County since 2014, according to the Galveston County Health District.