It’s been a decade since voters went to the polls in the Woodlands Road Utility District. With no voters speaking up, after all, the board that has issued $75 million in public debt since forming in 1991 has been able to conduct its business independent of, well, anyone.
But not on May 8.
Using a caveat in Texas election law that allows a voter to register anywhere he or she decides to call home, a group of Woodlands residents have decided that their home is the Residence Inn there at 9333 Six Pines Drive, right in the middle of the road utility district. As such, they are supporting a trio of candidates to contest the three incumbents on the district’s board.
Of course, the dozen new voters don’t really live at the Residence Inn. But they can change their voting residency in a few computer clicks.
"I have doubts that they are qualified voters," said Mike Page, legal counsel and point man for the utility district. Page questioned whether the voters view the Marriott-label hotel as a place they will return to, citing the state's legal definition of residency: "one's home and fixed place of habitation to which one intends to return after any temporary absence."
A Woodlands activist aiding the Residence Inn voter drive said his organizing efforts are legal, albeit creative.
Adrian Heath, a part-time gadfly, read a Texas Watchdog story in February that described nine Tarrant County voters who listed the DEA headquarters at Alliance Airport as their home.
He had been curious about the operations and taxing authority of the road district for some time, wondering just who called the shots and how a resident could get on the district board. The five-member board meets monthly in open meetings. The district taxes only commercial businesses, at a rate of 47 cents per $100 property valuation. Heath feared that the debt issuance and the ability to tax might eventually trickle down to residents if a financial crisis were to strike the well-heeled planned community 35 miles north of Houston.
The district takes in 2,475 acres in the ever-growing 28,000-acre Woodlands, which includes an array of homes, office buildings and businesses nestled among fully-grown groves of trees and crisply manicured lawns.
So when Heath queried Page about the next election for the utility board, he was told there were no residents and therefore no election. And there hadn’t been one in the district since May 2000, when four voters cast ballots.
After a further review, though, Page found a voter and called an election, notifying Heath in an e-mail and posting a public notice on the building where the board meets. In the meantime, Heath did his own research and found nine voters registered to various commercial enterprises in the district, including a hospital, an insurance agency, a United Way office and yes, the Residence Inn.
Heath then took it upon himself to find some additional, like-minded Woodlands residents to register to that same Residence Inn.
Shortly after Heath's newly registered voters hit the rolls, the Montgomery County district attorney’s office fired off a letter to Heath, notifying him that someone had filed a complaint alleging voter fraud with regard to the residency claims he made.
Heath is soldiering on, and has created a Web site devoted to the utility district.
Thanks to state election law that is generous in its definition of home --- “Residency can be determined by the voter,” Secretary of State spokesman Randall Dillard says --- an election is on.
Sitting utility district board member Winton Davenport Jr. is defending his at-large seat and his $25-per-meeting paycheck.
“I’m not campaigning,” Davenport said. He took office three years ago to replace a board member who died. When election time rolled around, he said, there were no other candidates.
Another board member, G. David Bumgardner, who is not up for reelection, said the utility district is doing exactly what its patrons want – “I don’t recall any of the property owners ever showing up asking to run for a seat. They are happy with the way things go.”
Richard McDuffee wants to be part of change in the 24-voter district, for what it’s worth. He doesn’t like the taxing power the district has, claiming that it drives up prices of both goods and services.
The taxed businesses just pass on the costs to customers, he said.
Page, the attorney for the district, remains baffled by the new voters and their apparent anti-tax fervor.
“Some people think that because the word tax is involved, they should have some say over it, even though they aren’t paying that tax,” Page said.
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Wednesday, 05/05/2010 - 06:49PM
For the record, first Mike Page claimed that no residents existed, then he was "advised" of two. Strangely, the husband happens to own the very building the District meets in. Oh, and he owns several other key properties in the Woodlands. Even by that time he had still not checked with elections central for voters,Any government entity that taxes a business called "The Residence Inn" should have an expectation that residents and voters exist. In fact the District has ignored registered voters in its jurisdiction since at least 2006.
That fact is a little more than the irritant that the term "gadfly" denotes. See the documents on www.fellowresidents.info
Thursday, 05/06/2010 - 08:17PM
I read Heath's story and realized you left out some documents. I've like your site until now. You have put yourself in the same catagory as the people you proclaim to expose. Half the information is not the goal. To have a good story, ALL facts must be exposed. You appear to have an agenda for yourself. A watchdog group should protect the people. Do your research on Page. I would love to see you connect the dots on this man and the SJRA, TW Township, Ft Bend, Nelda Blair, Montgomery County.................................. Change your name or get on board.
Lee Ann O'Neal
Friday, 05/07/2010 - 12:45PM
Dear Adrian and Mike, thank you for reading and writing in, and for raising these concerns about the taxing entities.
Mike, you sound frustrated. I want to assure you and our other readers that Texas Watchdog does not have an agenda outside our mission of providing news that reveals how government is or isn't working. (More about Texas Watchdog's purpose under "About" tab). I'm unclear on which documents you believe were left out of the story, but feel free to forward those to writer Steve Miller, whose contact info is listed above.
Our aim in posting the story was to give readers a look at an interesting election phenomenon that is made possible by the residency laws governing elections in our state. I've heard election administrators say that "residency is a state of mind," meaning a voter in Texas may choose a workplace, a UPS box, even an empty lot as his official voting address ---- even if it isn't where he lays his head at night. The citizens' effort in The Woodlands is an unusual demonstration of how that law can play out.
Lee Ann O'Neal
Friday, 05/07/2010 - 05:57PM
I’m glad you asked. I have followed the development of this story with Gadfly Heath himself. Steve’s report leaves out several important facts.
Attorney Mike Page denied in response to an open records request that their were any residents in the district on March 9 and did not check with Montgomery County Elections for the presence of voters until March 31, 2010 - their first time in history to contact the registrar.
Miller also overlooked how the WRUD claims not to know the surprise voters that Page discovered on March 26 in spite of the fact that the same voter/resident just happen to
Manage $500 million in real estate funds from their “Residence”
have received a tax abatement on their property from the County and the WRUD
Own the very building the developer offices in and the WRUD meets in each month
The Documents I mentioned are found here.
They have been supplied to Steve already and to the local media but are not mentioned.
Sunday, 05/09/2010 - 10:49AM
Harris County Dem party, in the settlement with Harris County tax office/voter registrar, made use of this tactic a centerpoint in that settlement. The voter registrar is barred from challenging any such registration in Harris County, assureing a steady supply of voters of convenience.