Declines to Take Public Questions
March 30, 2021
Updated April 13, 2021, with date of next Houston Parks Board public meeting: June 22
The private Houston Parks Board foundation recently presented the City Director of Boards and Commissions Maria Montes in a virtual Zoom meeting. As usual with Zoom meetings, there was a Chat and a Question and Answer feature that allows participants to post questions and comments for all to see.
But the private board declined to take any public questions, oddly directing that questions be sent to another website that required a code to sign in, a first in our experience with virtual meetings. We signed in and typed in our questions. They were not asked or answered.
This was disappointing. We wanted Montes to explain publicly the difference between the private Parks Board foundation and the public Parks Board, a local government corporation. We also wanted Montes and/or the foundation to tell us when the public parks board has public meetings, as required by law, and how the public is notified about them, also required by law.
In addition, we noted that there are seven expired terms on the twenty-member public board. When was the last time the Mayor appointed a new member to the Parks Board and how does one become a member of the board? All twenty members of the public board also serve on the private board, effectively a two-thirds majority of the private board. Most other major cities have separate public parks boards or commissions and private supporting foundations, with the former often populated by experts and people whose communities benefit socially and environmentally from parks and the latter generally dominated by people who benefit financially from improved real estate values.
In July of last year Montes told us that she would be meeting with the mayor in early August to discuss whose term has expired and potential candidates for the public parks board. Apparently that was an unproductive meeting, if it occurred, because there are now more expired terms on the public board (7) than there were then (4).
Last week’s presentation featuring Montes was sponsored, as noted, by the private Houston Parks Board foundation as part of their regular Rising Leaders Lunch and Learn series. The private foundation also runs the Houston Parks Board website. The City of Houston lists the private foundation’s website as the website of the public board. There are no notices of regular meetings, past or future, agenda, or minutes to be found there.
No Notice or Reports of Public Meetings
Montes, who has been Houston’s director of boards and commissions for nearly three years now and previously worked for real estate development and investment company Transwestern, did vaguely answer a question about ethics training, referring generally to boards and commissions. She apparently did not have time to mention that public board appointees are required by Texas law to have training in the Open Meetings Act as well as the Public Information Act.
After the virtual event we received a polite email from a staff member employed by the foundation (the public board has no staff) noting that our questions would be directed to someone who could best answer them. We also received an email linking to an expired notice on the foundation’s website about a meeting of the public board last September 22. The notice was posted four days before the meeting. Though we receive regular emails from the Parks Board foundation, we did not receive an email about the meeting.
If the last meeting was Sept 22, and if as we’ve been told, the public board meets twice a year, shouldn’t there be another public meeting or a notice of a meeting by now? Six months was March 23.
Update: A follow up email from the staff member said that the next meeting of the public board would be in June 22, with the following meeting scheduled for Sept. 28, and that notice would be posted on the private parks board foundation’s website. No word yet on the whereabouts of minutes of those meetings.
Major Project is Bayou Greenways
The Parks Board foundation’s major project is Bayou Greenways, an excellent and very popular concept. If only the bayous were green, or had some shade trees, like Buffalo Bayou. Or like it used to be.
Here is what the private Parks Board did to Buffalo Bayou upstream of the Shepherd Bridge in an effort to make room for a ten-foot wide concrete sidewalk: bulldozed the bank, cut down trees, drove sheet pile into the bank so that creatures large and small can no longer live there, essentially deadening that part of the stream. (This in addition to the bizarre and damaging concrete sidewalk to nowhere the foundation installed on the high bank of the bayou in the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, a city park (and parking lot) on Westscott Street opposite the Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, the former home of Ima Hogg, conservationist, philanthropist, and collector, among other things, who also donated the 15.5-acre park as a nature sanctuary.
Sadly, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which now owns Bayou Bend, is planning a major “bank repair” project below Miss Ima’s beloved garden and woods. We have a report coming up on that soon, along with discouraging news about the Memorial Park Conservancy’s plans to bulldoze the banks and possibly channelize and reroute Buffalo Bayou flowing past Memorial Park.
Memorial Drive from Houston Avenue downtown to Loop 610 West is six lanes for cars, three lanes going each way. We have suggested that the City look into dedicating a couple of lanes out of those six lanes to bikers and hikers who want to go safely from Buffalo Bayou Park below Shepherd to Memorial Park and beyond.
We’d also like to see the Parks Board separate from the private foundation and follow the law about open meetings.
There are three ways to become a candidate for the public Houston Parks Board, according to Montes: a recommendation from a city council member, making an application online, and by recommendation from a current parks board member.