The year 2019 can be viewed through its dichotomy, stark opposites of success and trouble. None epitomizes ultimate highs and lows better than state Rep. Dennis Bonnen.
When Bonnen earned unanimous election Jan. 8 as speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, the longtime legislator said, “I never dreamed of or planned to be in this position.” He likely could say the same in late October when his fall from the top tier of Texas politics was complete following a political waterboarding by far-right forces exposing the speaker’s ugly attempt at gamesmanship.
It all started with great promise when Bonnen promised issues such as property tax reform and a school finance overhaul to be the centerpiece of the lower chamber’s agenda. He made it clear in his first speech as speaker he intended to unify the House and put the members in charge, a mantra he repeated throughout the session.
“In his 22 years of experience, he has learned the ins and the outs of the Texas House as well as anyone I’ve ever served with,” said Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, who has served 45 years in the Texas House, “Dennis is a man who keeps his word.”
Bonnen did. Before the session ended May 27, he had negotiated a state budget that would be signed by Gov. Greg Abbott without a single line-item veto. Teachers would get raises as part of the school finance overhaul, and legislation aimed at controlling skyrocketing property values would become law.
Political insiders heralded his low-key approach and ability to focus members with differing agendas on the common goals. His center-right philosophy trumped the hard right’s agenda, and of the “Big Three” state leaders, he stood tallest next to Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
Just two weeks later, Bonnen would light the fuse on his own implosion by meeting with the leader of one of the groups considered a big loser in the just-completed session, Michael Quinn Sullivan of Empower Texans. In that meeting, covertly recorded by Sullivan, Bonnen made numerous defamatory comments about fellow members and offered coveted floor media access to the group in a suggested trade of political favors.
Initially, Bonnen apologized only for choosing to meet with the hardline Sullivan and challenged the activist’s version of events. He repeatedly called for Sullivan to release the full recording, as did other top Republicans. Those who heard the recording in private, however, said it largely supported Sullivan’s story, not the speaker’s.
When the tape became public Oct. 15, Bonnen’s political future had been successfully left in ruins. His denials of impropriety had been morphed into denials of lawbreaking, and within a week, he had lost the support of other House leaders.
Bonnen announced Oct. 22 he would not resign either his seat or speakership, but would not seek reelection to the House. Two days later, Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne said she found Bonnen’s actions “repugnant” but they did not violate any laws. Her decision was based on an investigation by the Texas Rangers.
“After much prayer, consultation and thoughtful consideration with my family, it is clear that I can no longer seek re-election as State Representative of District 25, and subsequently, as Speaker of the House,” Bonnen said. “I care deeply about this body and the work we have accomplished over the years, namely, the outstanding success we achieved in the 86th Legislature.”
History will determine which side of Bonnen is remembered in the years ahead, the one that led the Texas Legislature through a successful session through strong, quiet leadership, or the one who submarined his political career with a failed political power play. For this year, though, we will view it as painfully watching a man slip from the peak of success into political quicksand largely of his own making.
In Brazoria County this year, there is no bigger, sadder story than that. Here are others that made headlines in 2019, as selected by the editors of The Facts.
Two major developments in Freeport marked promise for the future in January.
First was the debut of the Freeport Strategic Community Plan, which projected major changes various officials and residents want to see in the next 20 years.
“A few things came out as priorities,” said Jennifer Hawkins, executive director of the Economic Development Corporation. “No. 1 is infrastructure. Streets and drainage need to be updated. Curbs and sidewalks have all been neglected for so long. I think that’s one of the major things Freeport residents are going to be excited about.”
Second was the announcement that Realty World Inc., a real estate service based out of California, had interest in building now homes within the city.
“They want to build houses in Freeport and they actually have acquired and can build on six 50-foot lots without variance. But from the EDC, they also acquired two 25-foot lots,” City Manager Tim Kelty said. “I didn’t realize until last week they had actually acquired more. There are six lots they are applying for variances for.”
The city in the past year looked to overcome its past and look forward to plans that will help establish it over the coming decades, and January marked many signs of progress in those goals.
Perhaps no moment captured the hearts of Brazoria County residents — and many others around the world — than when Abigail Rose Arias was made an honorary officer for the Freeport Police Department.
The 6-year-old, wearing a miniature police uniform, was sworn in by Chief Ray Garivey and later that day was promoted to chief-of-the-day by City Manager Tim Kelty.
Arias was 4 when she was diagnosed by doctors with Wilms’ tumor, a rare kidney cancer primarily affecting children.
The community rallied around Abigail, and over the following months made appearances at many events and received support from other police departments across the country.
Columbia-Brazoria ISD officials made the decision in March to realign grade levels at Wild Peach and Barrow elementary schools after community feedback. Board President Johnathan Champagne made a motion during a trustees’ meeting to have preschool, kindergarten and first grade at Wild Peach Elementary and second through sixth grades at Barrow Elementary, as well as moving West Columbia Elementary’s preschool students to Wild Peach.
During community meetings over the last several months, the principals had discussed potential overcrowding at West Columbia Elementary School and declining test scores at Barrow and Wild Peach, Wild Peach Principal Mary McCarthy said.
More staff per grade level would help students succeed through more teacher experience and more tools in their toolboxes, Superintendent Steven Galloway said. Wild Peach had just two teachers per grade level.
In a heartwarming move, several area students attended prom on April 5. But unlike most proms, this one was special.
The event, “A Night in the Spotlight,” welcomed teenagers with special needs and local first responders for an exclusive night of dancing, food and fun.
The event was the brainchild of Kay Millsap. She expressed an interest in organizing the event, and school districts gave her an estimated number of how many special needs children went to their districts.
From there, she organized an event that welcomed about 70 young people aged 14 and older for a night of fun they could call their own.
““We want our kids to be included,” volunteer Sharon Martinez said at the event. “We want them to have the same opportunities, the same fun as every other kid out there and we want them to be able to do it in a safe environment.”
The same year it is celebrating its 50th anniversary, Brazoswood High School alumni learned their old stomping grounds would be replaced with a new one.
Brazoswood ISD’s voters passed a $267 million bond request in the May 4 elections, the bulk of the money going to replace the current high school. Other new buildings include the Stephen F. Austin STEM Academy campus in Jones Creek, building new multi-sport athletic complexes at both high schools, and maintenance, transportation and child nutrition facilities.
The next-largest chunk of funds, $48.9 million, will pay for facility additions and program improvements for high school career and technical education. Security enhancements and technical education upgrades are another significant expenditure.
The measure passed overwhelmingly, with almost 80 percent of those casting ballots voting in favor of it.
In other elections, Richwood voters approved a $4 million bond program which will focus on bringing the city’s water pressure up to required levels, especially in the north end of town and Oakwood Shores area; Sweeny chose a new mayor, elevating councilman Jeff Farley to the post; and 21-year-old college student Erik Aguilar won a Clute City Council seat over 80-year-old Don Oakes.
Having already worn their caps and gowns and been handed diplomas, a handful of Angleton High School graduates still have a final exam to complete. It would happen on the softball diamond, not the classroom.
Seniors Ellie Grill, Aaliyah Garcia and Avery Farr led a talented group of Ladycats, who only suffered two losses on a season, to the 5A state championship trophy in Austin.
The journey wasn’t easy, including a marathon contest in the state seminfinal against defending champion Forney was decided by a Garcia hit in the bottom of the 11th. An early lead helped the exhausted Ladycats lock up the title with an 8-1 victory over Corpus Christia Calallen the next day.
The core group of five seniors completed their four-your mission to win state gold, one that saw a loss in the state title game as freshmen in 2016 and disappointing finishes short of Austin in 2017 and 2018.
“This means a lot because it’s been my life for the past four years,” senior outfielder Avery Farr said after the championship game. “This has been the day I’ve been looking forward to. It’s crazy because now I am thinking, ‘What am I going to do now?’”
The residents of Angleton had the answer, hosting a series of celebrations over the course of the summer.
Investigators left little doubt about whether a Brazoria County Sheriff’s deputy was justified in opening fire on two people outside a home on CR 687 near Angleton.
Nineteen shots were fired toward the deputy after the officer tried to conduct a routine traffic stop early on the morning of July 17, the sheriff’s department said. At least seven shots hit the deputy’s patrol vehicle, according to the release, but none of the bullets struck the deputy.
Brandon Stansel, 36, and Kelly Brumley, 40, died at the scene. Stansel and another man were in a 2015 Kia passenger car that failed to stop for the deputy as it traveled west on Highway 288-B toward CR 687, instead pulling into a driveway on the county road, the sheriff’s office said.
Someone in the vehicle opened fire once the car stopped in the drive, investigators said.
It was the first of two uncharacteristically violent crimes in the county just a week apart.
Deputies went to a home in the 500 block of Buck Road in Wild Peach the morning of July 22 in response to a reported stabbing and found 24-year-old Heather Dawn Meyers dead on the floor. A man in his 40s was found with minor stab wounds.
Brandon Allen Black, 25, who officers saw walking on the road not far from the house, was arrested and charged with murder. He reportedly was romantically involved with Meyers’ mother.
Investigators believe a verbal altercation between Myers, her mother and Black escalated into the stabbing.
Black has remained in the Brazoria County Jail on bonds totaling $640,000 since his arrest in July. His trial is scheduled for March 3.
A dozen children attending a movie night at a city pool were hospitalized after being exposed to a chlorine leak, police said.
At about 9:30 p.m. Aug. 2, the Lake Jackson Police Department, EMS and Fire Department responded to the Lake Jackson Outdoor Pool in the 300 block of Magnolia Street after a report that children were exposed to chlorine, Lake Jackson Police Lt. Bryan Sidebottom said.
Six children who were exposed to the airborne chlorine experienced respiratory irritation and were taken by Lake Jackson EMS to Chi St. Luke’s Health Brazosport hospital, Sidebottom said. Five other children were taken to the Lake Jackson hospital and one to a Houston hospital by their parents, Sidebottom said.
City officials found when a staff member entered the pool equipment room and drained some water from the pool, they did not turn the chemical feed valve to the off position, according to the city. That caused people in the shallow end to be exposed to pool chemicals, officials said.
The new school year started with students in Clute celebrating their new school while those in Danbury were feeling bittersweet about the pending replacement of theirs.
T.W. Ogg Elementary in Clute opened to pre-kindergarten through fourth grade students Aug. 14, Brazosport ISD’s first day of school. It is the third of five replacement campuses residents voted to fund with a $175 million bond in 2014, Superintendent Danny Massey said.
Among those on hand was teacher Elsa Garza, whose 36-year career had been spent entirely in the old Ogg building.
“It’s cliché to say, but it’s bittersweet,” Garza said. “That was my home. But this is my new home.”
That feeling of melancholy was true in Danbury ISD, where students will get a new building next school year.
As students filtered down the blue hallways of the 68-year old building, which once served as the high school and junior high, kids were seen swinging lunchboxes and stopping to hug a favorite teacher.
“There was a definite energy in the air,” Principal Jennifer Williams said. “You could hear it in the hallways, people were just like, ‘Wow, this is the last year here.’ It’s really bittersweet.”
Brazoria County heralded a pair of milestones in industrial investment in the first half of the month, one celebrated with big names and the other slipping quietly through the Freeport Ship Channel into history.
Freeport LNG completed its turnaround from an import to export business by shipping its first load of liquefied natural gas form Train 1 at its Quintana Island terminal Sept. 3.
The LNG Jurojin, an almost 140,000-ton tanker vessel, took about 150,000 cubic meters of LNG commissioning cargo from the Freeport LNG terminal. The company would not say where the Jurojin was heading.
It was fewer than 45 days from the time the company introduced cargo gas to its liquefaction facilities to when it loaded the first cargo. Other ships soon followed, and by December the company announced it officially started full commercial operations.
Freeport LNG announced its milestone through a press release, while MEGLobal marked the substantial construction completion of its Freeport facility with a big party and some heavy hitters.
Dow Chemical Co. CEO Jim Fitterling, Equate Group President and CEO Ramesh Ramachandran and Kuwait Petroleum Corp CEO Hashem Sayed Hashem cut a ceremonial ribbon inaugurating the MEGlobal Oyster Creek site Sept. 9. The three companies are partners in the new monoethylene glycol facility, MEGlobal’s largest.
The MEGlobal Oyster Creek site is MEGlobal’s largest facility has the capacity to produce about 750,000 million tons of ethylene glycol annually. The $2 billion project provided 2,000 construction jobs at its peak and created 80 long-term and contract positions — and it completed construction with zero accidents, ahead of schedule and under budget, officials said.
That evening, former Secretary of State James A. Baker, a member of the Kuwaiti royal family and other notables celebrated with a reception and program at The Clarion, highlighted by EQUATE President and CEO Ramesh Ramachandran — a naturalized U.S. citizen — leading the hundreds in attendance in singing “God Bless America.”
It took more than two years, but some families affected by flooding spawned by Hurricane Harvey learned Brazoria County will receive funding to help them elevate their houses in hopes of preventing them from flooding again and others will have new homes built.
The county applied for a pair of $30 million grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist with reconstruction and renovations and had both approved in mid-October, Brazoria County Floodplain Administrator Joe Ripple said.
“We’re going to build about 200 new homes for people whose homes were either destroyed or below grade,” Ripple said.
Both of the $30 million grants are 75-25 grants, meaning the grant money will go toward 75 percent of the renovation or elevation costs while homeowners cover the remaining 25 percent, Ripple said.
Homes that will receive assistance have already been selected and will be bundled and worked on during separate phases, Ripple said.
Upgraded facilities for students in Angleton and Columbia-Brazoria ISD headlined the results of an unusually high-profile November off-year general election, and voters in both school districts gave their approval to the plans on the ballot.
Angleton ISD’s $90 million bond request got a thumbs-up form about 58.5 percent of those casting ballots Nov. 5 despite an anonymous anti-bond group pushing for its defeat with a campaign online and with yard signs.
At $53.4 million, a new Career and Technology Education center at Angleton High School will account for the majority of the bond, with a new transportation center costing $16.8 million. Classroom renovations at the high school will cost $6 million, energy upgrades will be $8 million, softball complex improvements at $3.6 million and a stage for Central Elementary costing $1.2 million make up the remainder of the plan. The bond contingency is $845,000.
C-BISD’s request consisted of just one main project, an $11.5 million renovation and expansion of West Brazos Junior High to accommodate sixth-grade students. That grade level currently attends either West Columbia Elementary or Barrow Elementary.
The measure received the support of 59.2 percent of those who cast ballots. District officials pointed out the proposal arose from discussions with residents who advocated the grade realignment.
The same day voters went to the polls, one of the county’s most high-profile, beloved residents succumbed to the rare cancer that had afflicted her since she was 4-years-old.
Abigail Arias, honorary Freeport police officer 758, died at home at age 7, weeks after doctors recommended she be placed in hospice care. She had continued a campaign of public appearances, including being honored during the Brazoria County Fair, but the pain from the progression of her disease and pneumonia left her resting in bed during her final days.
After word spread of her death, law enforcement officers from around Southeast Texas gathered to escort her to the funeral home. Abigail would be buried with full police honors.
“Abigail is one of our honorary officers, she’s one of everybody’s honorary officers,” Pct. 2 Constable Willie Howell said. “This is what you do, this is family and family pulls together.”
Opponents of a proposal to build a rail line from Port Freeport to a Union Pacific yard in Kendleton got an early Christmas wish when the agency studying the idea pulled the plug on it.
The decision followed a meeting Dec. 19 between the district’s engineering committee, HDR Engineering and the three sponsoring agencies, Brazoria County, Fort Bend County and Port Freeport, district board member Earl Shipp said.
Before the announcement, 10 attendees, including elected officials, from Wharton, Matagorda, Fort Bend and Brazoria counties spoke out against the potential project, citing concerns regarding the environment, drainage, business sense and lack of communication.
Not all residents were angry as the year wound down. Many opened their hearts and wallets to residents affected by a rash of fires in the days leading up to Christmas.
Eight families encompassing 34 people — including 15 children younger than 12 — lost their homes and most if not all of their belongings to a Dec. 20 fire in their building at Vanderbilt Apartments in Clute. Complex employees were able to give them new apartments in which to live, but it took a groundswell of community support to give them clothing and other basic needs.
A planned two-day donation drive organized by the city for the fire victims ended after just a day because so many items were collected. Mattress Firm donated two dozen mattress sets, and the Brazoria County Dream Center provided bedding for them.
The groundswell of generosity was no less for a couple in Jones Creek who escaped a fire that destroyed their home in the overnight hours of Dec. 23.
“It looks like it could be electrical, the way it sounded,” Marshall William Tidwell said. Because it was a manufactured home, it’s very likely that that’s what caused it, he said.
By that afternoon, the village was collecting donations of clothing, toiletries and other necessities and a GoFundMe account had been set up for the couple.