Vote on Buffalo Bayou Takes Place Behind Closed Doors

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A handful of people clustered in the dim hallway outside Room 100 in the building that houses the Harris County Flood Control District.

The clock nosed to 2 p.m. and everyone allowed in the meeting -- the members of the Harris County Flood Control District Task Force, each of whom is allowed one guest -- slid past two deputies from the Precinct 4 Constable's Office and into the room. In the minutes leading up to the meeting, a man was questioning everyone (or so it seemed) who walked into the door, politely but firmly informing each that this meeting was not open to the public.

The door swung shut behind them leaving about half a dozen people in the hall.

"So what are we going to do now?" A.C. Conrad, a longtime environmental activist, says. "Well, we could sing a song?" Olive Hershey, a longtime activist on behalf of Buffalo Bayou, stared over at the door with narrowed eyes, looking unamused.

The door was thick and heavy, the kind you couldn't have heard through if you'd had your ear smashed against it. Of course, because the officers were standing in front of the door, no one was getting anywhere close to it.

The task force was slated to vote on whether to support the Memorial Demonstration Project, previously reported on by the Houston Press. "The task force wasn't elected. No one voted for them. They don't have the right to make decisions about our bayous," Hershey says.

While the whole thing was being sold officially as a completely run-of-the-mill non-public meeting, it was weird to see people questioning everyone who pulled into the parking lot, to see law enforcement watching everyone walk into the building and then settling in to guard the door of a meeting that is usually so sparsely attended that the matter of whether it's public has never been an issue until now.

The task force was created in the 1970s "to study flood control problems in the County," according to a Harris County Flood Control District handout. The group is currently composed of 31 members from a range of groups that have a vested interest in all things flood control (environmentalists, engineers, developers, etc.)

Despite official reassurances that these meetings have always been closed, the task force meetings have always been so casual that they have rarely had all the members of the task force actually attend a meeting, Evelyn Merz, the Lone Star Sierra Club task force representative, said. That made the decision by Ranney McDonough, task force chairman, to specifically close this meeting to the public strange, she said.

(We've requested comment from McDonough on the closed meeting and the presence of law enforcement. We'll update as soon as we hear back.)

The official explanation that went out to members of the task force explained the whole thing away in an email sent out before the meeting thus:

"These meetings have always been limited to members, advisory members (which are other organizations that were not originally selected to be a part of the 31 voting members) and their guests. This has never been a meeting where any member of the public could freely attend and these meetings have never been advertised for anyone other than those on our invitation list to attend. Because this meeting is just an advisory committee to Commissioners Court it is not held liable to the Public Meetings Act."

We ran this whole thing by some legal minds who are familiar with the case to get their take on the move to suddenly close a meeting that has always been so casually attended by its own members that the question of whether the meeting was actually open or closed never even came up. We're told it might be a legal gray area. The definition of what is a governing body in the Texas Open Meetings Act lists a whole bunch of things, and a lot is determined by whether the votes and decisions of a governing body are binding or not. In the case of the task force, the entity's decision's are not binding, though they are often touted by the Harris County Flood Control District as proof of public support. It certainly shows that both the folks on the task force and Harris County Flood Control know full and well that the project is a contentious issue.

So what's the big deal? At issue is the Memorial Demonstration Project, a project that proposes to use controversial natural channel design to restore Buffalo Bayou and stop erosion along the channel. "They are using the wrong design in the wrong place and trying to say this is the best solution without ever considering hybrid alternatives," Merz claims.

Proponents of the project say that it will restore a mile-long stretch of Buffalo Bayou and prevent further erosion of the waterway. They say the project will rescue the bayou from the dangers of erosion by reshaping the lines of the waterway and locking the bayou into place using natural channel design.

Opponents say that it will destroy the last bit of riparian forest on the bayou, harming native plants and wildlife and doing no measurable good to the waterway itself. The opposition also maintains that the project will gut the last stretch of riparian forest along the waterway and points out that natural channel design is controversial, with many saying that the guru of the method, Dave Rosgen, doesn't mention that some of his projects have failed.

The project has been in the works since 2010, Merz says. The whole thing actually started with the Bayou Preservation Association, a group originally created to protect this stretch of the bayou back in the 1960s. Their focus has altered since then, Merz contends. "The biggest real concern in all of this is the BPA, what it has become. I actually fault the BPA more than Harris County Flood Control. I think the BPA has basically abandoned its mission," she says.

Merz and company knew something was going on with Buffalo Bayou, but it took submitting comments with the Army Corps of Engineers -- the body that will ultimately decide whether or not to approve the Harris Country Flood Control permits for the project -- and by filing public information requests. By the time they got a copy of the project plans, the plans were already 60 percent complete, Merz says. "They'd kept it until then to only a small cadre of supporters," she says. "They hid it."

Frank Smith, one of the founding members of the BPA (he was outvoted when he tried to persuade the BPA not to undertake this project), was allowed to attend the meeting as Merz's guest. "I understand it's a done deal. I guess it's not over till it's over, though. We're still hoping that we can find some sort of reprieve for the riparian forest."

The group forced to stay outside the meeting milled around, talking among themselves and to the even smaller group of media (the Press included, of course.) "I expected this," longtime environmentalist Katy Emde says. " It just seems strange to me that the public can't go in. There's room in there. It's not as if it's a crowding issue."

(The official explanation for the closed door and all the law enforcement weirdness was that it was a fire safety issue based on crowding. This explanation would make sense except for the fact that just a little more than half the actual task force showed up. With 31 members on the task force and each member reportedly allowed one guest, there should have been plenty of room for the handful of people left out in the hall.)

Meanwhile, behind the guarded door, the Harris County Flood Control District Task Force took a vote on whether to support the project or not. Merz had served on the subcommittee that reviewed the project before it was brought to the task force. After being outvoted on that subcommittee (4-1), she had requested and been promised time to speak to the full task force before the final vote was made, she says. However, she was told that her request hadn't been put on the agenda and thus she wasn't allowed to make her comments on Monday before the ballots were cast. The task force doesn't have any power to actually make policy, but its recommendations are given to the Harris County Commissioner's Court.

Merz says she knew how the vote would go before the meeting even started. "The task force is heavily weighted towards people who have received their appointments from the Harris County Commissioner's Court and local engineering companies. I can count," she says, noting that she expected there would be exactly one vote against the project -- hers. The vote was 19-1 in favor of the project.

The Army Corps of Engineers is expected to have a ruling on the permit application before the end of the year.

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