Investigation into Secret Meetings Regarding Waller County Landfill, Houston Chronicle

Investigation into secret meetings regarding Waller County landfill
By Cindy Horswell
April 4, 2013
Two special prosecutors are investigating citizen complaints that some Waller County commissioners may have violated Texas laws by holding secret meetings where they conspired to push through a giant landfill.
The complaints accuse three court members of acting in collusion, without following the rules for informing the public, in order to broker deals with Green Group Holdings. This Georgia-based company is trying to turn a 723-acre pasture into a dump that will be filled with garbage as high as a 15-story building.
Landfill opponents like Bill Huntsinger worry it will sit over an important aquifer recharge zone and could contaminate the region’s underground drinking water.
The proposed dump site is just a few miles from the courthouse in Hempstead on Texas Highway 6, which is considered the gateway to the county seat and Prairie View A&M University.
At the same time, Hempstead City Council will be seeking a temporary restraining order against Waller County commissioners on April 11 to stop them from killing an ordinance that prohibited any landfill being constructed on that site.
Commissioners had passed the measure and then reversed itself on a 3-2 vote on Feb. 13. County Judge Glenn Beckendorff argued the ordinance never would have stopped the landfill because it went into effect after the landfill’s application was filed.
Beckendorff and Commissioners Frank Pokluda and Stan Kitzman said the ordinance could not have been enforced retroactively and they wanted to protect their negotiated agreement with Green Group.
The agreement provides for the county to be paid $1 for every ton of garbage ($429,000 a year) and participating cities to share another “estimated” $215,000 a year.
Nearly $1 million in additional pay would go for fire protection, county libraries, grant funding and scholarships.
Avoiding conflict
The probe into whether any commissioners are violating open record or meeting laws will be handled by two assistant prosecutors from Fort Bend County, Mark LaForge and Scott Carpenter.
“I asked and was granted these special prosecutors by State District Judge Jeff Steinhauser so the review can be handled by neutral parties,” said Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis.
He chose not to handle it himself to avoid any conflict of interest since his parents own a home within less than a mile of the site. He has also voiced strong opposition to it and donated money to fight it.
Steinhauser charged the appointed prosecutors with looking into any possible criminal or negligent acts by the court in regards to the proposed landfill.
Records requested
Pokluda said the dump site has stirred a “lot of emotion” but the allegations about illegal meetings, including at a hotel, are “untrue.” Kitzman agreed, “We are always ready to cooperate, but in legal matters we have to refer to our attorneys.”
Huntsinger criticized the commissioners for their “failure to have open dialogue with their citizens.”
Opponents have filed two requests for commissioner’s cell phone records, appointment calendars, travel records and other documents.
They said the public was kept in the dark for so long about the landfill negotiations and are hoping the documents sought after might provide critical information.
Garbage deal is ‘smelly’
The commissioners’ attorney asked the Texas Attorney General to issue an opinion as to what must be released.
On March 13, the attorney general determined a large portion of one request must be released but has not yet responded to the larger document request filed by Wayne Dolcefino, former Channel 13 investigative reporter hired to assist opponents.
“This garbage deal is smelly in more ways than one. The people in Waller County deserve to know the whole truth about their elected officials,” he said.
County officials have indicated that fulfilling the request might take several months.

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