Tag Archives: Randall County

USS Arizona to add to War Memorial

AMARILLO, Texas — I guess it can be stated clearly: A piece of one of the darkest days in U.S. history is going to adorn the Texas Panhandle War Memorial in south Amarillo.

It’s the product of some wheeling and dealing by Randall County Judge Ernie Houdashell, who has been working with federal and state of Hawaii officials to bring a piece of the USS Arizona to the Texas Panhandle.

They’re going to add the piece to the War Memorial on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7. It will arrive around 11 a.m. Saturday at the Randall County Event Center, where they’ll have a welcoming ceremony.

This is an extremely poignant addition to the War Memorial, which already includes — in addition to the stone tablets chronicling the conflicts this nation has engaged in and those who died in them — an F-100 Super Sabre jet and a UH-1 Huey helicopter.

The Arizona was one of several big ships sunk in Pearl Harbor more than seven decades ago in the event that brought the United States into World War II. President Roosevelt called it a “date which will live in infamy.”

It’s a date we cannot forget. We must always remember it.

Judge Houdashell told me some months ago about the Arizona memento coming here. He was thrilled beyond belief to get it done.

I am proud of my friend for scoring this magnificent addition to the War Memorial.

Political learning curve about to commence

I met a most interesting gentleman this morning, someone who almost immediately after extending his hand to greet my wife and me invited me to come to Fairview’s town hall to familiarize myself with the community’s political climate.

This fellow is a member of the Fairview Town Council. I am reluctant to give you his name, as he doesn’t know I’m writing about him. Maybe I’ll divulge it later.

Our relocation has been pretty smooth and seamless as we have settled in this community tucked between Allen and McKinney in Collin County. My wife and I are registered to vote now in our new community of residence, which removes any chance for us to vote in Randall County, where we lived for 23-plus years.

I wanted to vote in the race for 13th Congressional District. That won’t happen now. We’ll get to vote for a new representative in the 3rd Congressional District, which has been represented since 1991 by U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson (pictured), a former Vietnam prisoner of war. Johnson is retiring at the end of the year.

I’ll need to study up on the individuals seeking to succeed Rep. Johnson.

My new friend from Fairview implied that next year’s municipal election will be a contentious affair. He didn’t go into detail; the setting of our meeting this morning made it difficult for him to spend too much time explaining what he implied.

My career took me to Amarillo in January 1995. My job as editorial page editor of the Amarillo Globe-News required me to get acquainted in a hurry with the political lay of the land, just as it had required the same of me in Beaumont, when we moved to the Gulf Coast in the spring of 1984.

I have no job requirements these days. However, my instinctive nosiness — which was bred and nurtured by nearly four decades in print journalism — compels me to sniff around at Fairview’s Town Hall.

So, I believe I will seek to satisfy my nosy nature by continuing this relationship with my new acquaintance.

Hey, my retirement doesn’t render me disinterested … you know?

Eight years on, it’s still pretty — and still empty

Randall County Judge Ernie Houdashell can claim many successes during his years presiding over the county’s Commissioners Court.

For instance, the sheriff’s department has built a complex on South Georgia Street; the county just recently opened its new courthouse annex on Western Street in southwest Amarillo.

Oh, and the county was able to spruce up the 1909 Courthouse building on the Square in Canyon.

I found a High Plains Blogger post from March 2009 that commented on the old courthouse. I noted that the outside looks good. The inside, well, is unusable. It was then. It still is today.

Pretty on the outside

Let me be crystal clear: I am glad that the county was able to renovate the exterior of that courthouse. It was able to secure a state grant, and then spent local tax funds — with voters’ approval — to finish the job.

The county vacated the courthouse years ago. It moved some functions across the street into the old jail building. The Justice Center was opened a few blocks away across the street from West Texas A&M University.

The old building? It’s empty. Its interior is a mess.

I wrote a feature story for NewsChannel10.com years after leaving the Amarillo Globe-News about a possible new tenant for the 1909 Courthouse: The City of Canyon considered moving in, according to City Manager Randy Criswell. Then the city backed off when the cost estimates proved prohibitive.

The Square has blossomed since the exterior renovation. Judge Houdashell is proud of what has happened to the Square: Businesses have sprouted up along once-empty storefronts. It’s active, vibrant, busy in downtown Canyon.

Houdashell credits the 1909 Courthouse for luring that activity.

That’s fantastic! Houdashell’s pride is justified. However, there must be a move afoot to complete this mosaic.

I haven’t asked my friend, Judge Houdashell, what he has in mind for landing a new tenant for the structure. My strong hunch is that with the Courthouse Annex project complete, he is likely to turn his significant deal-making skill to finding an organization interested in fixing up a grand-looking old building.

My sense is that the success already brought to Canyon by a renovated exterior will explode even more once they find someone who fix up and occupy its interior.

Democrats feeling a ‘wave’ coming on?

Democrats across Texas are heartened by a surge in their party’s early primary voting numbers, saying that they are rivaling the primary interest generated by the 2008 presidential campaign struggle between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The Hill reports a surge in some urban areas, such as Harris County. They believe the Democratic primary uptick signals a potential “wave” sweeping across the state this fall.

Count me as mildly skeptical of that, although I do hope for a wave, given my own progressive leanings.

I clearly recall the heavy Democratic interest in 2008, even in heavily Republican Randall County, where I am registered to vote. The lines at the Democratic polling station was far longer than it was at the GOP station, signaling to my mind a bit of GOP crossovers seeking to commit a bit of mischief in the other party. Hey, that happens on occasion.

The Democratic surge then didn’t translate to victory in the fall, as Democratic nominee Obama lost Texas to GOP nominee Sen. John McCain.

Moreover, I don’t necessarily equate large early-vote numbers to increase overall turnout. It means quite often only that more voters are casting ballots early … and that’s it!

My own preference this year was to vote in the GOP primary, given my intense interest in helping return Kel Seliger to the Texas Senate. But that’s just me.

“You can’t underestimate the surge that we’re seeing out there with the blue wave coming,” said Ed Espinoza, executive director of the Democratic-leaning Progress Texas.

Let’s just wait this one out. Shall we?

Randall County set to open a new shop

In just a few hours, they’re going to unlock the front door at a Texas Panhandle county complex.

It will mark the beginning of a new era.

Randall County’s new courthouse annex will open for business as the county vacates its former annex. The new site will be on Western Street and Paramount Boulevard. It will be about six times larger in terms of floor space than the other place. It will be essentially a “full-service county government operation.”

As a resident of Randall County, I am delighted that County Judge Ernie Houdashell’s hard work and hard-nosed negotiating skills have borne fruit.

The new annex will sit on a parcel that used to be home for an insurance firm. The firm went bankrupt and moved out. Houdashell set about negotiating with the Amarillo Economic Development Corporation to buy the building.

AEDC finally sold the site to the county for $2.5 million. That was nearly two years ago. The county then tore the old building apart and has turned it into a state-of-the-art government complex.

Whereas the old annex, at Georgia Street and the Canyon E-Way, comprised the tax office, a justice of the peace court and a small sheriff’s office presence, the new place is much more complete.

It will contain all of the above. It also will have a county clerk operation, a district clerk office, a county court-at-law, a second justice of the peace courtroom; the district attorney will maintain a presence there as well.

It’s full service, all right.

Randall County’s population is around 125,000 residents; it has overtaken neighboring Potter County in size.

Although the Randall County seat is in Canyon, about 80 percent of the county population resides in Amarillo, providing about 80 percent of the county’s total revenue in taxes and fees. It makes perfect sense for the annex to provide more county government services for the vast majority of the county’s taxpaying residents. It saves them drive time to Canyon and provides better service closer to home.

What happens to the old annex building? It will be taken over by the Texas Panhandle War Memorial board, which operates the memorial next to the Georgia Street complex. Houdashell told me the War Memorial board plans to use the annex as a chapel, while it continues to raise money to erect its long-planned education center next to the garden and the monuments that honor Panhandle residents who’ve fallen in battle in defense of our country.

I guess all that’s left to say is: Well done, Ern.

Where does ideology fit in this office?

I get a kick out of looking at political campaign signs … and Lord knows we’ve got a lot of them sprouting up all over Amarillo, Texas, as our state’s primary election is less than a month away.

One such sign caught my eye this morning and it brings to mind a question I’ve pondered for nearly as long as I’ve lived in Texas; that’s nearly 34 years.

Susan Allen is running for Randall County clerk. The current county clerk, Renee Calhoun, isn’t seeking re-election. I don’t know Allen, but I am struck by a message on her sign, which reads “A Conservative Choice.”

Hmmm. So, the long-pondered question is this: Why do we elect some of these statutory offices on partisan ballots?

Moreover, when does political ideology matter when we’re pondering for whom to vote for an office such as county clerk?

I’m not sure how a “conservative” county clerk is more desirable than a “liberal” one. How does one apply the duties of county clerk to fit a political ideology? Now that I think about it, I can come up with only one possible avenue: whether the county clerk would issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples as required by federal law. It is my fervent hope that I might be reading too much into that explosive issue and how it might determine whether voters will make a “conservative choice” in selecting their next county clerk.

The county clerk is responsible for maintaining records for county courts at law. The clerk also manages voter registration and serves as the chief elections officer for a given county. Where does it really matter whether the county clerk adheres to a conservative or liberal political philosophy?

I’ve wondered before — on the record — about the partisan or ideological requirements for a number of such offices. They include tax assessor-collector, treasurer, district clerk (which administers records for state district courts) and, yes, even for sheriff and district attorney.

Does it really matter if a county’s top cop and top prosecutor belong to a particular political party? For that matter, how does a Republican tax collector-assessor do his or her job any differently from a Democrat? Same for treasurer.

Perhaps you’ve known that I also dislike the idea of electing judges on partisan ballots. I won’t go there — this time!

I’m sure Susan Allen and all the other county clerk candidates are fine people. They all are more than likely technically qualified to do the job required of them under the state laws they take an oath to follow to the letter.

Ideology should be a non-starter. I damn sure hope that’s the case in Randall County.

Voting early … under duress

I’ve stated over the years my distaste for voting early. I prefer the ritual of voting on Election Day. It’s a matter of seeking to protect myself against any of my candidates doing something that would make me regret casting my ballot for them.

Here comes the punch line: I am likely going to have vote prior to the March 6 primary election.

It’s not because I want to do so. It’s because my wife and I plan to be out of town that day. Our granddaughter’s birthday will require us to be away from our polling place on Election Day. Thus, I’ll be voting “absentee,” which is what they used to call it long before states made “early voting” so fashionable.

I remain opposed to voting early when I know I will be home on the day we go to the polls.

My opposition is as strong as ever.

Now the quandary: Which primary do I choose? In Texas we have what’s called an “open primary” system. We don’t walk into a polling place registered to vote in one party’s primary; we make that decision when we get there. The election judge then might stamp our voting card with the name of whichever primary we choose to cast our ballot.

Since my wife and I are registered to vote in Randall County, it’s a foregone conclusion that the local races will feature zero Democrats. In these mid-term elections, I often find myself voting in the GOP primary because that’s where my vote counts for county race and state legislative contests. I am occasionally inclined to look past the national races — U.S. House and Senate — while preferring to decide for whom to vote in the general election in November.

So, this year I likely will get to break with personal tradition.

Still waiting for jury duty

I must be a weirdo.

I’m now 68 years of age and I have a item on my bucket list that I likely won’t ever fulfill.

I want to serve on a trial jury. I want to get the chance to determine whether someone is guilty or innocent of a crime. I even would settle for a civil case that would allow me to rule in favor of a plaintiff or a defendant.

It won’t happen. Not likely ever.

Over many years of living I’ve heard too many friends and acquaintances gripe about serving on a jury. They don’t have the time. They don’t want to be bothered. Public service? Let someone else do it!

Why, I never …

I posted a blog item in February 2009 that called attention to a local sheriff reporting for jury duty. Randall County’s top cop, Joel Richardson, performed his act of public service.

So, what’s your excuse?

I was proud of Sheriff Richardson.

Alas, I won’t be able to do what he did … more than likely.

In Randall County, where I’ve lived for more than two decades, I receive jury summonses about two, maybe three times a year. The county’s automated system allows summons recipients to call the prior evening to see if we have to report. Almost without fail, I call and the recording excuses “all jurors” until the next time we get called.

Then there’s this grand jury matter. I served on a Randall County grand jury some years ago. We met for three months, handing out indictments and no-billing people listed in criminal complaints brought by the district attorney’s office. The DA, James Farren, told us we could kiss any future jury duty goodbye, given our grand jury experience. Why? Defense counsel would strike us as being biased in favor of the prosecution.

Drat!

I know this sounds strange. I do wish I could get a jury summons, answer it, report for duty and then get selected to hear a case. Hey, the pay is lousy.

Then again, public service isn’t about personal enrichment … correct?

County set to open a new door to its future

They’ve got some work to do yet on the new Randall County Annex building in Amarillo, Texas. But have no concern at all. They’ll get it done. It will be cleaned up and the county is moving in to conduct business as usual in late February.

County Judge Ernie Houdashell took me on a tour of the place this morning. To say he is mighty proud of it is to say that “it’s been a bit breezy in the Texas Panhandle these days.”

Let me put this another way.

Donald J. Trump calls himself the master of the “art of the deal.” In reality, Trump is a piker compared to the dealmaking skill exhibited by Ernie Houdashell.

The annex will replace a 10,000-square foot structure currently operating at South Georgia and the Canyon E-Way. The county is getting a 63,000-square foot facility. Houdashell said the county will occupy about 38,000 square feet of the new building. The rest of it will be available for use as the county continues to grow.

“We bought this for $38.60 per square foot,” Houdashell said, adding that the per-square-foot price is a seriously good bargain. The county paid $2.5 million total for the building, which it purchased from the Amarillo Economic Development Corporation.

Randall County is unusual in this respect: Its county seat is in Canyon, but the vast bulk of its business is done in south Amarillo, which makes up about 80 percent of the county’s population and provides about 80 percent of the tax revenue. “We haven’t served the people of Amarillo well” with the old annex building, according to Houdashell.

The new structure is going to contain many features missing from the old annex: a district attorney’s office, the county clerk’s office, the district clerk’s office and one of the county’s courts at law all will be located inside the new annex. The county also will have a significantly greater space that it will use as voting center. Whereas the old annex often required voters to stand in crowded spaces waiting to cast ballots — or to wait outside occasionally in inclement weather — the new site will provide a much more customer-friendly environment.

Houdashell explained that state law prohibits state district courts from operating outside the county seat; thus, they will function exclusively in Canyon — with the courts with jurisdiction in Potter County also operating in Amarillo.

My brief tour of the new Randall County Courthouse Annex gave me a glimpse into the future of the county. The courtrooms will be fully secured, as will the main public entrance.

I have to say that I am mighty proud of my friend Ernie Houdashell. He is running for his fourth term as county judge. He is unopposed in the 2018 Republican Party primary and, given that there are zero Democrats running for public office in this heavily GOP county, the judge is assured of another four-year term.

Oh, the old annex building? It will be given to the Texas Panhandle War Memorial foundation, which will use it as a chapel while it raises money to build an education center alongside the garden and the memorial to those Panhandle veterans who have fallen in battle.

I don’t know what lies ahead for the judge once the new annex opens its doors to the public on Feb. 26.

I have this hunch my old pal might have another deal or two to strike before he calls it a career.

Now it’s the grand jury system under attack

Grand juries do an important task within the criminal justice system.

They hear evidence from prosecutors and then decide whether a criminal complaint merits an indictment, which is a formal accusation of a crime that needs to be decided by the courts.

Now, though, the grand jury “system” has come under attack as it relates to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether the Donald Trump campaigned had an improper relationship with Russian government hackers seeking to meddle in the 2016 presidential election.

Who are the attackers? I’ve heard it come from right-wing talking heads on conservative media outlets. For example, Sean Hannity of Fox News said the grand jury that Mueller has impaneled is inherently biased against Trump. Hannity echoes the president’s description of Mueller’s investigation as a “witch hunt.”

Fascinating, yes? Sure it is. These are the same fools who called for grand jury investigations into Hillary Rodham Clinton’s missing e-mails. This is the “lock her up!” crowd that didn’t give a damn about any presumption of innocence and wanted a grand jury to find a reason to imprison the former U.S. senator, secretary of state and 2016 Democratic Party presidential nominee.

These individuals make me want to puke.

***

I now want to say a few words about the grand jury system.

It’s not perfect, but it works. Indeed, I have some intimate knowledge of the Texas grand jury system. I served on a grand jury for three months here in Randall County. I was asked to serve by a jury commissioner who was picked by 181st District Judge John Board; the jury commissioner, a friend of mine, was tasked with finding qualified individuals to serve on a grand jury.

I eventually was seated on the grand jury and we met in Canyon each week. We heard complaints brought to us by law enforcement. It was an educational process to be sure. Did we indict every criminal suspect named in a complaint? Hardly.

We would hear from prosecutors who would explain the circumstances surrounding the complaint. We would ask questions of them, talk among ourselves and then decide whether to issue an indictment. It was clean, simple and most importantly, it was done honestly and in good faith.

Granted, the stakes involved in our list of hearings fall far, far, far short of what awaits the grand jury that will consider the assorted Donald J. Trump matters that Robert Mueller will bring forward.

It angers me in the extreme, though, to hear partisan, talking-head hacks disparage for political purposes a segment of our criminal justice system that can — and does — bring great value to the delivering of justice.