Tales From the Brookside
To a traveler passing by on the highway, Brookside Village, a tiny, blue-collar community 30 minutes southeast of Houston, seems the picture of bucolic tranquillity. If, that is, you happen to notice it: for anyone driving along FM 518, the main drag of Pearland, the green sign quietly noting that Brookside lies to the east is easy to miss. And Brookside itself -- two square miles and a population of around 1,500 -- is scarcely more arresting than its signage. In truth, though it boasts the unlikely designation of Pearland suburb, the tame, green Brookside landscape scarcely is even identifiable as a place.
Instead, both from the modest, respectable ranch houses on the west side, and the dingy trailers and wood houses on the east, one gets the sense that this little community is more of an accident, a bend in the road where day trippers from Houston, Mexican laborers leaving Houston and Pearland natives who found land or a sweetheart that caught their fancy paused and then, without really planning to, stayed. Today, 36 years after it was incorporated, the little town with its widely spaced houses, two bars and one grocery store still feels somehow unfinished, still country.
Especially to someone tired of the pressures of urban existence, Brookside Village might appear to be an oasis, a place where neighbors go out of their way to be neighborly, and the only conversation over the back fence is about how nicely someone's vegetable garden is doing.
But if you thought that, you'd be wrong.
Instead, within this town's spotless kitchens and behind its tractor- trimmed lawns swirl rumors, allegations and whispered suggestions of local malfeasance. Attendance at City Council meetings, once countable on two hands, has in the past year climbed to close to 100.
And most curious of all -- though almost everyone has concerns they're eager to share, and complaints are not at all hard to find -- it's clear that for many Brookside residents all this political intrigue is, well, appealing.
In this sleepy community where there's little to do and even less money to spend on it, what elsewhere might be simple disputes have come to consume residents with something like mystical fervor. It's almost as if, in finding intrigue, the people of Brookside have found purpose. And they have also found a suggestion of malevolent powers. Like Keyser Soze, the enigmatic enforcer in the film The Usual Suspects, someone, many Brookside residents will tell you, is controlling their town behind the scenes.
Just who that person -- or group of persons -- manipulating Brookside Village is said to be depends a lot on whom your informant happens to support in local politics. But while the police, the mayor and a nine-month-old group calling itself Informed Brookside Village Citizens are all singled out as possible behind-the-scenes string pullers, the one name heard most often is that of Councilman Bobby Moore, a quiet, slow-speaking man who often spends Brookside's town meetings staring down at the table.
Though Moore is easily the most taciturn member of Brookside City Council, a great deal of energy is spent talking about him, alluding to him, consulting with him and occasionally insulting him directly. "I have no idea how he does it," says one Brookside woman, in the kind of commentary many in the town like to offer as long as they're not quoted by name. "All I know is Moore's got the police chief and all the police with him. They are using police and Council budget for their own personal gain."
Meanwhile, leaning back in perhaps the most immaculate of Brookside Village's many clean kitchens, the individual reputed by some to run his community smokes a cigarette. A man of medium height, he gives the impression of being heavyset, though he actually isn't. Two of his front teeth are gone, a faded and primitive outline of a heart is tattooed on his forearm and he wheezes a bit when he talks.
Once, when Moore steps out of the kitchen, his wife Susan, who is Brookside Village's jailer, opens their medicine cabinet to show the 26 medications her husband takes since a car accident four years ago ended his career as a truck driver. It was after that, Susan Moore says, that her husband entered local politics. After winning a bitter race for his City Council seat, Moore now devotes himself full-time to local government -- and in particular to helping Brookside's police force.
Moore, says his wife, simply loves the police, perhaps because his three brothers work for the Brazoria County sheriff's office. And while in another town Moore's legal passion might be lauded, in Brookside Village it raises all kinds of eyebrows. That's because Brookside is one of the most thoroughly policed towns in Texas. Nationally, the average for police coverage is about 2.3 officers per thousand residents. With three full-time officers, and three police cars, for its 1,500 people, Brookside may not at first seem unusually well covered. But throw in at least 15 non-paid reserve officers, and the city's reputation for extremely vigilant law enforcement becomes more understandable. How positive all this is varies sharply according to who you talk to.
To the Moores and their supporters, it's a privilege. Many reserve officers, they explain, use Brookside Village as a training ground. After finishing the police academy, aspiring officers come to Brookside as volunteers to get the street experience that will help them when they apply to big-city departments. Brookside, says Bobby Moore, only benefits from this free assistance, and he wants to do all he can to support it.
Opponents, including former councilman Cliff Moffitt and current councilman David Armelli, though, say the police department is bloated. Insuring and outfitting the department, they say, takes an absurd proportion of Brookside's budget. And, others say, there's something pernicious about Moore's fascination with the police: somehow, they insist, he manages to influence the five member City Council to channel Brookside's funds toward the police department rather than toward more pressing problems such as, for instance, repairing streets that are nearly impassable.
The Moores, for their part, describe the councilman's influence in town as plain strength of character, and their friendship with the police as simple boosterism. Granted, Moore may be a little closer to the cop on the beat than is common in a larger city. In February, for example, he accompanied police Sergeant Jeff Hodges on an official police trip to the Astrodome to investigate possible wrongdoing by former councilman Frank Testa. Susan Moore is also close to the police: she likes to refer to "that little officer" or "our little sergeant" and ride around with the officers at night, saying she feels safer with them than by herself in Brookside's jailhouse.
And Brookside officers also apparently feel safe with the Moores. One young reserve officer, Chris Carson, lives at their house. The police chief calls the Moores during the middle of the day. And officers gather from time to time in the Moores' kitchen to confer on various law enforcement projects.
Bobby Moore knows that all this causes people to talk about him, says his wife. That they say he and the police are somehow in cahoots, that officers arrest people simply so they can take them to jail, and so give Susan Moore more work to do, and let her, an hourly employee, earn more money. She acknowledges that rumors even fly that she pads her jailhouse time sheet to amass 18 and 22 hour workdays, even that she stuffed ballots in favor of her husband at last year's City Council elections.
All this talk makes her ill, Susan Moore says. But then again, she adds, Brookside always has been contentious. And anyway, she says, the potshots at Bobby Moore only reflect jealousy of a man who thinks for himself, investigates things that look suspicious to him and helps the peace officers out as much as he can.
Among the jealous, she says, are members of the Informed Brookside Village Citizens, a nine-month-old group of about 70 people whose members often clash with her husband. "The village idiots," is how Susan Moore describes them. Although the group is officially apolitical, its leaders are at the forefront of opposition to those presently in power in Brookside. One member of IBVC is Bruce Fundling, who opposed Moore in the last City Council race and who's running for a vacant Council seat in this year's May 4 election. Many of the IBVC members, Fundling included, first entered city politics in earnest after the flood waters of 1994 ravaged their roads.
"They make this personal, totally," Susan Moore says. "[Bobby Moore] tries to help them, then they turn around and attack him."
If Brookside residents have a penchant to suspect and accuse, it's also undeniable that they have often been blessed with plenty to talk about. "Everyone's got a skeleton," Susan Moore says bluntly, and she's nearly right. You can tell when you've gotten close to one when the person you're talking to says they can't quite remember, or don't want to discuss, some event that everyone else in Brookside will gladly describe in detail.
Such is the case with the most recent scandal, the tragicomic indictment of former Council member Frank Testa. Some of his supporters hint cryptically at a frame-up, but the fact is that Testa, who resigned from Council in 1995, was charged this March with stealing $4,521 from the Brookside Village Volunteer Fire Department. The money, Brazoria County District Attorney's Office investigators say, didn't go to buy him a vacation, a new car or to pay off some old debt. Instead, it was allegedly used to buy lifetime memberships in the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. The charge, apparently, is theft in order to one-up the neighbors, and improve his social standing. (Testa was unavailable for comment, and his case has not yet gone to trial.)
Even Bobby Moore, who likes to keep his documentation of various townspeople's infractions in a battered leather briefcase, succumbs to some of these memory lapses. Once such involves his mentor, former police supervisor Jack McCool.
It was McCool who, in the mid-'70s, first instilled in Moore a deep reverence for police work. Moore remembers that he admired McCool so much that he signed on as a reserve officer. One night after he'd been working for six months, he says, he saw then-mayor George Carter speeding down the road, apparently drunk. Moore says he tried to apprehend Carter, but his police chief stopped him. "Believe me, if I had to do it over, George Carter would have been in jail," he says. The next day, says Moore, Carter fired him and the other reserve officers in retaliation.
Carter, a current mayoral candidate, denies any such confrontation ever took place. He says he doesn't recall Bobby Moore as a police officer, nor any events having to do with McCool or reserve officers during his tenure.
And while Moore recalls Carter quite well, he says he draws a blank on the fate of his friend McCool. Brookside Mayor Martinez has no such problem with his recollection; he says McCool was terminated from the police department for driving a young girl he was dating around in his squad car while on duty. And that wasn't the last time a Brookside law officer was accused of misconduct. Over the last three years, in incidents that spawned grudges that last to this day, two other Brookside police chiefs were ousted for separate misdeeds related to the unauthorized purchase of firearms.
In a town as small as Brookside, the accusation or arrest of a community leader leaves a lot of people defensive, outraged or looking for vengeance. And in a place where a goodly number who have close connections to the community have been charged with one thing or another, it's not hard to see how those grudges would stay alive. "It's all personal," Susan Moore likes to repeat tartly.
But in Brookside, it's also not quite that simple. The empty Mexico Moderno restaurant, the near-banishment of a whole segment of the town and the pathetic roads on the west side of the city all bear witness that at least some of the smoke and hot air in Brookside Village is generated by actual fire.
When I first visited Mexico Moderno, one of the two bars in Brookside Village, it was a gusty night when shutters slammed against house walls and bare branches smacked the roof like an intruder forcing his way in. The sounds were enough to make anyone jump, and owner Jose Garcia, who says he is being persecuted by Brookside's police, seemed especially nervous. He was afraid someone might see him talking to a reporter. Two months later, though, Garcia says he doesn't care who he's seen talking with. His business is about dead anyhow.
But on that winter night, there still seemed a chance that things might work out at Mexico Moderno. Garcia, a trim-looking man with a mustache and snappy cowboy clothes, speaks English with enough grace that you'd think he's comfortable in it. He isn't, really. Though he's lived in the United States for close to a decade. Garcia, who's been in Brookside three years, prefers to speak Spanish and to run a Mexican-style bar.
Brookside's population is roughly 40 percent Latino, and many of these residents live in houses only yards away from Garcia's bar. Before Garcia took the place over three years ago, it was fairly tough. Shootings, fights and general disorder were common. But, says Garcia, when he opened his place he transformed it from a common cantina to a family restaurant.
"It used to be ugly and dirty," Garcia says, but he made it into something with a chance for success. On this particular night, though, the bar was deserted. The only living thing near the pool table was a huge rooster, irritably dozing atop the green felt. Garcia lets the animal in when it gets cold outside, and anyway, there was no one in the bar to object. Constant harassment by Brookside's mixed volunteer and full-time police force, Garcia claims, drove his Mexican clientele away.
On Friday and Saturday nights, he says, the police lurk around in front of the restaurant, arresting his clients for public intoxication sometimes as soon as they leave. They arrest and jail people who are walking home to houses only a block away, he complains, even people who are escorted by a sober person. The officers constantly come into the bar, shine their flashlights into clients' faces and insult them, Garcia laments.
The persecution has even been personal, he charges, with police following his car and giving him unwarranted tickets. "Why isn't there justice?" Garcia asks. "White people never have this problem."
Police Chief Fred Turner, though, categorically denies the accusations of harassment. "The police department is a whipping boy" in Brookside, Turner says. "We have a set of laws that the city puts down, and that's what we follow." As for Garcia's customers, notes Turner, they're not being persecuted; they're breaking the law. "He insists on serving them until they get stumbling down drunk," Turner says. "We monitor the whole city for drunks. Of course [police] come out [to Mexico Moderno] -- we only have two beer joints."
Why then is that other bar, Linda's, prospering? Located about five minutes away from Mexico Moderno, and frequented mainly by Anglos, it's a popular watering spot for off-duty policemen; on a night when Mexico Moderno is virtually vacant, Linda's parking lot is close to full. Susan Moore says she knows the reason why one bar succeeds while the other doesn't: Linda's is located on the border of Brookside Village, and customers who leave the place drive into Pearland, where Brookside cops can't pursue them.
But Jose Garcia isn't the only person in Brookside who believes he's been singled out because he's Latino. The several dozen Mexican immigrants who wait every morning for day labor on a lot across the street from Garcia's bar agree. "People are afraid of the police," says a man who calls himself Fermin.
His companions nod emphatically. Some say that police officers, whose names they don't know, have burst into their houses without warrants or explanation, at times in the middle of the night. Even more vocal than Jose Garcia or the laborers, however, have been members of Informed Brookside Village Citizens.
"Eighty percent of the people they're doing bad stuff to is Mexicans," says former councilman Cliff Moffitt, a member of IBVC. While Moffitt isn't against the police, Jose Garcia's empty restaurant, he says, is only the most obvious example of a police department with too much power in the daily life of Brookside Village.
In the opinion of Moffitt, one symbol of what's wrong with Brookside is the pitted and flood-gouged west Brookside road he lives on. He's been told the road can't be fixed because the town hasn't the money for it. But the road problems, he insists, have little to do with a tight budget, and everything to do with priorities.
True, the roads on the town's west side will be costly to fix: Brazoria County Commissioner Billy Joe Plaster estimates that street repairs will start at $200,000. In the past, Plaster explains, Brazoria County simply absorbed the costs of special road projects. This year, however, Plaster told Brookside, as he had told other communities, that it would have to start fending for itself. For a town whose entire annual budget is less than $300,000, the repair figure seems astronomical. Yet, Plaster adds, he hasn't asked the town to pay for all of its roadwork. "We've told Brookside they've got to come up with some money to help," Plaster says. "They can tell me what they can come up with. But they haven't told me anything."
That, says Moffitt, is because Brookside's money is mismanaged. For example, the 15 to 17 part-time police officers have to be insured at more than $350 a year each. Then there's the other costs of supporting them -- it is, he says, too much.
But Police Chief Turner insists this expense is right and fitting. It's not too much, he maintains, to insure an officer when he's offering his service for free. Brookside also needs all its police vigilance, Turner says. For the casual visitor, that's hard to understand. Brookside is such a sleepy community that it's difficult to envision where serious crime could be lurking. The simple ranch houses occupy two- and three-acre lots. A horse or two may nibble grass between some of the homes, but otherwise there isn't much in Brookside to tempt a crook. And on the east side, where most Mexican immigrants live, the houses are downright bedraggled: wooden trailers with faded gingerbread trim and shotgun houses crowd into cramped lots.
Yet more robberies take place per year in Brookside than in larger, busier Pearland. And, Turner says, gangs crisscross Brookside on their travels from Pearland and Alvin. Sometimes gang members even come into Brookside to hide. There have been three homicides in Brookside during the past year, two of which Turner attributes to gang vendettas.
"There are gangs everywhere," he says darkly. "Brookside, Alvin, Telephone Road. Hell, we're surrounded by them. I have a lady from the Informed Citizens, she said nothing bad ever happens in Brookside. That's how informed they are. They never stick their heads outside their houses."
Turner, a tall man with iron-colored hair and a big hearty handshake, makes no pretense of civility toward those he considers his opponents on police issues. As far as his critics in IBVC are concerned, he says, "I've never in my life seen such born liars."
Some critics of the police department use even stronger language than Turner's. It's not crime that keeps Brookside's policemen so active, the whispered argument goes. Instead, they say, it's to bring money into the police department, which absorbs 40 to 50 percent of the town's budget. And even the briefest look at the town's arrest records suggest that gang-related crime isn't all that's keeping Brookside up at night.
Instead, the records show the typical bread and butter of a small town police department: speeders and public intoxication and drivers without insurance. Lots of them. Last July, for example, Brookside police arrested and temporarily jailed 27 people. All but seven of these were for traffic infractions or public intoxication. In August, there were 28 arrests, 19 of them for traffic violations or public intoxication.
Arrests peaked at 31 in November. The great majority of the names on the arrest list are Hispanic. The trend is so striking that not only Latinos in Brookside are wondering whether all tipsy revelers and people who drive 43 miles per hour in a 40 mile per hour zone really require being carted to jail.
"Except for a couple of offenses, a [Texas] police officer has the discretion to make an arrest or give a citation," explains Jerry Dowling, professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University. "Now as a practical matter, it is the practice in the state normally to write people a citation for traffic violations other than DWI. Offenses such as speeding or running stop signs get a citation simply because of [the wish] to efficiently use police resources."
In Brookside, though, arrests seem the order of the day, and critics of the police department's hegemony object to that on more than just principle. Instead, they cite a welter of suspicions, some farfetched, some less so: allegations of setting up speed traps and of targeting immigrants who are less likely to go to court and reclaim the money they've put up for bond.
"It's called cash money. It's called black market," says one member of IBVC, who (of course) asked not to be named.
Though much of the talk that seems to keep Brookside alive takes place behind closed doors, in the town's kitchens or across telephone lines into sympathetic ears, a dispute over Brookside's roads early this year sparked an unusual public showdown. It happened on February 15, at the City Council meeting. Moments before it started, a man in a brown jacket sauntered to the Council table and poured himself some coffee.
"I want to get my money's worth," he told the mayor and five councilmembers, "before you-all throw me out of Brookside."
He wasn't speaking figuratively. Instead, like many of the 57 families in his west Brookside neighborhood, the man had just heard of a proposal to have his entire area deannexed from Brookside Village -- or, as Council member Frank McCain, the motion's sponsor, tried to style it, liberated. If Brookside couldn't afford to repave the problem roads of the west side, he reasoned, it made sense to turn the area over to Brazoria County and let them deal with it.
But to the 80 odd residents who had hastily assembled that afternoon, the explanation didn't ring true. (As it turned out, it wasn't accurate. Brazoria County wouldn't accept the roads in their current condition, commissioner Plaster says.) Why, they wondered, had the motion appeared on the agenda without any discussion? Why had McCain hired the city attorney to draft the legislation before it was even debated? Above all, audience members said, it was highly suspicious that after two years of bickering over Brookside's roads, a measure to sever the offending part of town altogether might be passed in one night -- less than a week before the sign up day for the May 4 elections.
Was it only coincidence that the scheme to fix the roads would also have the effect of ridding Brookside's leadership of an opposition mayoral candidate, at least two rival City Council candidates and almost all the officers of the dissident IBVC? The lone councilman to speak out against the plan, David Armelli, complained that "it's to keep [the opposition] from filing and running for office. The whole thing involves the police department. Bobby Moore [and sympathetic councilmembers] plus the mayor are in these schemes together .... This is their way of getting the people from the west end and keeping them from voting." If the west-side citizens hadn't mobilized so swiftly, Armelli says, Council would have voted for the deannexation and that would have been that.
During the meeting in the one-room community center where signs for Lions Club functions leaned against one wall and a half-dozen police officers lined up against the other, residents of Brookside took their place at the microphone, one after another, to agree.
"It seems to me, fellows, like you are doing something that's going to get you in trouble," drawled a man named Nathan Zainfield.
"Mr. McCain, I do not believe in my heart that you are the person that dreamed this up," added Steve McCown, looking meaningfully at Moore.
Futilely, McCain tried to explain that his plan was an innocent one.
"I work for the benefit of the city," he told the audience. "I want to make sure you understand that this is a strictly financial consideration."
"That's a lie! That's a lie!" someone barked. Others muttered their agreement.
And in the end, they had their way. Instead of being voted on, the deannexation plan got tabled; in the weeks before voting day, it would be postponed twice, then finally killed, ensuring that Brookside's opposition candidates would have their day at the polls this Saturday.
Some sort of shakeup seems the likely result. Opposition Council candidate Bruce Fundling, fiery and accusatory for the past year, in recent weeks has become politic to the point of being insipid. Arrests have plummeted to almost nothing, smoothing the waters during campaign time. And although Martinez has made it known he'll accept write-in votes, opposition mayoral candidate George Carter is officially running unopposed. If he wins, Carter says, he will see to it that numerous pieces of information about Brookside, including specifics about where its budget goes, will be revealed.
But it's easy to imagine that no matter what new names go on Council, or what old ones stay, or what bureaucratic fixes are made, Brookside Village's lively political culture will stay much the same. That's not such a bad thing, opines Carter: if nothing else, Brookside has a healthy democracy. There may be, however, something deeper, more atavistic, that fuels Brookside's democratic spirit. Something that came out at that Council meeting to fight deannexation, and hasn't entirely receded since: an unmistakable exhilaration, an alert excitement.
Brookside's citizens, after all, have gotten rather eloquent of late. Both the Moores and their IBVC rivals have gotten adept at citing precedents, documenting their neighbors' foibles and studying the testimonials and damning letters about one another that they collect in battered briefcases and manila folders. Clearly, there was something nourishing to the west-siders about a room full of protesters, all working together, just as there was something bracing about how Steve McCown put his complaint about deannexation to Council.
"I've talked to Washington, Austin and Angleton," McCown intoned solemnly. "I know you cannot do this. I know you will be stopped."
Then he fixed an eye on Bobby Moore and said, "Make my day."
Gina Gomez contributed to this story.
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