Highlands Fire Board election gets little notice

ESD board members Chester Stasney

HIGHLANDS– ESD #14 completed their election by canvasing the votes last Monday night at a special called meeting. The Emergency Service District is the quasi-government board that levies taxes for the Highlands Volunteer Fire Department, and allocates monies for their budget.
Due to lack of publicity, only 53 votes were cast, out of a possible thousands of electorate. Of these, Jim Strouhal got 50 and Alton Neatherlin 36 for reelection. The Tax Rate Authorization received 49 For and 4 Against votes, thus passing.
This election was necessary because the Texas State Legislature, in their 2007 session, changed the regulations governing ESD boards, so that commissioners must be elected rather than appointed, and serve two year terms. This meant that in Highlands, two seats were up for replacement this time. Jim Strouhal, board president, and Alton Neatherlin, were the candidate and were reelected.
On advice of the ESD legal counsel, the ballot also contained a provision for the district to raise taxes in the future, from the current 5¢ per $100 valuation of real estate, to a maximum of 10¢ as allowed by law. However, attorney Butch Callegari explained that the election laws would not allow this to happen without public hearings that would be advertised in the future, prior to a board vote on the rate.

The requirement to publicize or advertise an election was not part of the requirements of this vote, according to Callegari. Notice of the election was “posted” in only 3 locations, but he said this met the legal requirements. These locations were the doors of the fire station, the community center, and the court house annex in Baytown.
At Monday night’s meeting, several local residents complained that no one in the community knew about the election or even the right to run for office. Historically, election notices have been published in local newspapers, but this time it was not done. Said Highlands resident Ted Kaminski, “The public doesn’t know there is an election. It’s like I’m a mushroom, being kept in the dark.” Board members later expressed regret that the notices were not publicized in the media. President Jim Strouhal promised that this would not occur again, whether required or not.
According to authorities, the change in law was proposed by Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole. He preferred that ESD boards were responsible to the public, not the County Commissioners who at that time were appointing them. As passed in 2007, this legislation only applies to Harris County, no other Texas counties.
Part of the provisions of the act say that the government body calling the election must pay the expenses, and in this case it will be the ESD#14. Expenses, including ballots, judges, attorneys, translations into 3 languages, and other costs are expected to be around $12,000, which will come out of the fire department’s budget, it was pointed out.
The act is extemely unpopular in smaller ESD districts, and there is some talk of repealing the law, or modifying it so that commissioners could serve longer terms. As it is now, 3 more Highlands commissioners must stand for election, with similar costs, in 2009.
Business Meeting
In other Fire Department business, Chief Harvey Little reported to the ESD board that in April there had been 168 incidents or calls for service, including 142 EMS calls, 26 fire calls, and 6 LifeFlights.
On a Year-To-Date comparison, there were 733 calls for service in 2007 at the end of April, as compared with 841 in 2008.
Response times have improved, and are 10 minutes average for fire calls, and 6 minutes for EMS in district.
Regular bills were also voted to be paid at this session, totalling about $16,400.