Private Parks Board Presents Director of Public Boards and Commissions
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.
Panel Discussion: Conservationist Rick Bass on His New Book of Essays
March 18, 2021
Native Texan, conservationist, and honorary Save Buffalo Bayou board member Rick Bass will discuss his new book of essays, Fortunate Son: Selected Essays from the Lone Star State, with SBB board member, environmentalist and author Olive Hershey. The virtual event, hosted by Houston’s Blue Willow Bookshop, takes place Monday, March 22, at 7 p.m.
Michael Berryhill, chair of the journalism department at Texas Southern University, will moderate. Also taking part in the conversation are Dr. Michelle Lute, National Carnivore Conservation Manager for Project Coyote, and Texas wildlife advocate Pam Harte.
Registration is required. For more information, visit bluewillowbookshop.com.
Late Winter on the Bayou
Plus Houston Stronger Survey, Scenic Houston Panel Discussion About Buffalo Bayou, Flood Planning Vacancies, Resiliency, and More
March 7, 2021
Our famous photographer Jim Olive was back in town, so a few days ago we went out into the woods in the drizzle just after dawn to photograph that bend in the bayou in late winter for our years-long series documenting the same bend through the seasons. The backup photographer, fearing that winter would soon be over despite the record freeze, had taken a sunny interim photo, which received some criticism from the master. (“Too flat,” he said.)
But now we were standing in a parking lot off the Picnic Lane/Loop in Memorial Park in the middle of Houston staring at sawed-up pieces of a big, old oak tree, new wooden fencing reinforced with moss-covered oak limbs, and a pile of sawdust.
Apparently it is a priority of the Memorial Park Conservancy to keep people off these lovely trails. In addition to a new wooden fence, there was extensive wire fencing winding along the edge of the tangled woods.
We found a way in, noting the tiny buds of green in the trees. Jim set up his borrowed tripod, and we waited for just the right light in the fog.
Conservancy Plans to Bulldoze, Smother the Bank
We couldn’t help but notice a couple of the conservancy’s Keep Out signs someone had tossed down the bank. The photographer’s helper wandered downstream a bit, contemplating the slumped, eroded bank, the colors of the revealed earth, the powerful forces that shaped the irregular mounds and valleys of the downward sloping bank. This was an area damaged by the Harris County Flood Control District when it removed the stabilizing woody debris, scraped and mucked around in the channel with an excavator and barge during its “maintenance” operations after Harvey.
Studying the slump brought back poignant memories of playing on the wild sandy bank of the bayou as a child in Houston, of being in awe of the force of nature, that early sense of the bayou as a living thing. It was a rare learning experience to have, and a privilege.
These memories were prompted by the sad news that the conservancy is planning to bulldoze and “restore,” smothering and landscaping the public banks of the bayou in the Old Archery Range, a small section of the park west of the 610 Loop off Woodway Drive.
We’ll have more on that soon. But as a historical note, an earlier, far more enlightened and ecologically sensitive master plan for Memorial Park in 2004 (the current plan dates from 2014-15) said that “the recommended course of action for the Bayou is simply to leave it alone and consider it a symbol of dynamic natural process. The Bayou can serve as a valuable environmental education tool that depicts the change inherent in nature. Possible solutions such as concrete surfacing and decreasing the bank slope would only destroy the habitat value and visual amenity of the bayou and conflict with the ability to observe natural process.” (p. 11)
Houston Stronger Survey due Tuesday, March 9
Houston Stronger is a coalition of civic groups and business associations in the Houston region that came together after Harvey in 2017 to advocate for flood and storm resiliency. A major flood problem during Harvey was too much stormwater flowing too fast into Barker and Addicks reservoirs in west Houston. The normally dry reservoirs drain into Buffalo Bayou.
In response, last October the US Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates those flood control dams, announced a tentative proposal to build a new dam and reservoir on Cypress Creek and the Katy Prairie and deepen and widen Buffalo Bayou for some 22 miles from the dams all the way to downtown.
The Corps’ Interim Plan was widely unpopular, and while continuing to gather public input, they are working on the next draft due out in late spring or early summer. In the meantime Houston Stronger has come up with an alternative to the Corps’ proposals. It includes elements of a plan proposed by the Katy Prairie Conservancy, which is part of the Houston Stronger group. Both plans include digging a 23-mile long tunnel, perhaps 40-feet wide, to take stormwater from Addicks and/or Barker dams to the Houston Ship Channel.
Save Buffalo Bayou is opposed to a $4 billion flood tunnel, which has no ancillary public benefit, among other problems, and favors a stronger focus on slowing the flow of stormwater from commercial and residential property into streams that feed into the reservoirs. SBB supports other elements of the Houston Stronger/Katy Prairie plans, including expanding, protecting, and restoring the Katy Prairie.
Houston Stronger is asking for public feedback on its plan, called the Buffalo Bayou Community Plan. So take a look at the plan and answer the eight questions in their brief survey by Tuesday, March 9, if possible.
Resilient Houston One-Year Update
The City of Houston has released a one-year update on the progress of its Resilient Houston Plan. The plan, released in February 2020, addressed climate, housing, health, flooding, neighborhoods, parks, and more.
According to a press release from Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office, “56 of 62 prioritized actions (90%) are in progress, five actions (8%) are paused or haven’t started, and one action (2%) is complete.”
Open Positions on Regional Flood Planning Group, Meeting March 11
The San Jacinto Regional Flood Planning Group is looking for two new members.
The San Jacinto Region 6 includes Harris, Montgomery, Galveston, and parts of Brazoria, Fort Bend, Waller, Grimes, Walker, San Jacinto, Liberty, and Chambers counties.
Scenic Houston Panel with Developers, Environmental Attorney Jim Blackburn, and SBB, March 23
Scenic Houston is sponsoring a panel discussion about Buffalo Bayou titled “Don’t Mess with Buffalo Bayou.” The free event takes place online March 23 from 8:30 to 9:45 a.m.
The panelists are environmental attorney and Rice University professor Jim Blackburn, also founder of the Bayou City Initiative; Susan Chadwick, president and executive director of Save Buffalo Bayou, Guy Hagstette, senior vice-president of parks and civic projects for the Kinder Foundation, and David Ott, Texas development director for the Hanover Company.
Marlene Gafrick, chair of Scenic Houston and director of planning for MetroNational, an investment, development, and management firm, will moderate the discussion, which will focus on the history and design of the bayou, responsible development and threats to it.
Here is how to register. Please join the discussion!