BOARD BATTLE OVER CEDAR BAYOU STRETCHES TO LEGISLATURE
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DREDGING VS. ENVIRONMENT
By CINDY HORSWELL
Copyright 2011 Houston Chronicle
April 20, 2011, 10:17PM
Boaters are seen as they drive a boat through Cedar Bayou on April 14, 2011, in Baytown.
The fight for control of Cedar Bayou, the quiet meandering waterway marking the border between Chambers and Harris counties, has erupted into a battle reaching all the way to the Texas Legislature.
Two Baytown residents — the only Harris County representatives on the seven-member Cedar Bayou Navigation District — would be stripped of all voting rights and a rotation set to elevate one of them to chairman would be scratched if a newly proposed law passes. That would leave the bayou under control of the five remaining Chambers County members, all representatives of industry.
The Harris County side of the bayou is composed mostly of homes and parkland where residents enjoy the bayou for fishing and water skiing, while the Chambers County side is industrial and uses the waterway for barges.
Consequently, Chambers County representatives believe the board's mission should be limited to dredging the waterway for barge traffic. But Harris County's representatives think the board must also be environmental stewards that protect the bayou's natural beauty through a permitting process and developmental guidelines.
Harris County's representatives, Calvin Mundinger and Jack Adcox, are looking into how the board's chairman and attorney plotted the Baytown pair's demise.
For at least four months, they say a draft of the proposed bill was being discussed and circulated among Chambers County commissioners for endorsement without any notice or approval from the full board.
"It's very unethical to have held these discussions without any board authorization," Adcox said at a recent board meeting.
Chairmanship at issue
State Rep. Craig Eiland, the bill's sponsor, whose district includes Chambers County, could not be reached for comment. The bill is under review by the transportation committee.
District board chairman Dan Hall, who also represents Texas Brine Co., refused to comment.
The board's attorney, Don Johnson, said discussions are ongoing to possibly amend the proposed law to keep Baytown's voting rights intact but remove the provision that guaranteed Baytown a chairmanship this year. The current law states the chairmanship will alternate every four years between an industrial member and a Baytown member.
David Law, a board member who also represents Bayer Material Science, said he would like the board to elect its chairman without any alternating.
"That's the way most boards do it," he said.
Baytown representatives say the power grab - without their knowledge - got under way in earnest last October when the board's attorney persuaded Chambers County commissioners to back the new bill.
The court passed a resolution that states that it supports the board's effort to "solidify the management" so that those in control are the industries with "direct economic connections" to the bayou.
Slip-up reveals plan
Baytown's representatives would never have known about the proposed bill if they had not inadvertently intercepted an email sent from Johnson to Chambers County Judge Jimmy Sylvia nearly four months later, Mundinger said.
The email included a draft of the proposed law and note directing Sylvia to forward the package "straight away" to Eiland for filing in Austin.
Baytown City Manager Bob Leiper was stunned: "It's important for us to have official representation on the board. We only have two members but it gives the public an active voice."
The public wants to protect the bayou's natural beauty, portions of which the Texas Parks and Wildlife considers a "critical wildlife habitat," said Cindy Coker, the founder of Friends of Cedar Bayou. She points to a pair of bald eagles nesting near the waterway and notes one of Baytown's oldest and largest parks is nestled on its banks.
The bayou also provides important flood control drainage for both counties, officials said.
Sylvia said he can understand why industry is pushing for change. "They are having trouble with the Baytown members who are causing constant turmoil," Sylvia said. "They keep getting away from the board's original purpose, which was to dredge. They want to control, manage and issue permits."
Law amended in 2007
When the board was created in 1997, it was funded through an annual assessment on industrial entities in a district carved out of Chambers County along the bayou (homesteads were exempt). This year, about 40 entities in Chambers County will contribute about $450,000 toward board operations.
In 1997, the board was composed of five industrial members. Their goal was simply to keep the bayou navigable along an 8-mile stretch from Texas 146 to the Houston Ship Channel.
In 2007, Baytown got the law amended to give the city two board seats and the public a voice.
"We didn't want the fox guarding the hen house," explained Chris Buckner, Houston's retired emergency public works coordinator who lives near the bayou.
U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston; U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Kingwood, and the Port of Houston's CEO Alec Dreyer have written letters opposing diminishing Baytown's power.
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