Jurors in Galveston have handed a major legal victory to the oyster companies fighting a major takeover of Galveston Bay.
After a two-day trial in Judge Lonnie Cox’s 56thDistrict Court, the oyster fisherman were awarded nearly half a million dollars in legal fees in their fight against S.T.O.R.M., an oyster company that tried to orchestrate the lease of half of oyster beds.
To this day, the Chambers-Liberty County Navigation District has refused to rescind their lease to STORM for 23,000 acres of Galveston bay bottom. Several courts have ruled the lease illegal, and Judge Cox was instrumental in stopping STORM from harassing other oyster boats when he ruled the bid to control Galveston Bay Oyster reefs was illegal last year. The trial was set to assess whether the oyster companies could recoup legal fees.
“This was an illegal lease from the start,” says attorney Cris Feldman of Houston based law firm Feldman and Feldman. “STORM sought to take control of the public resources that belong to all Texans. They threatened the livelihoods of hundreds of Texas fishermen. Today’s ruling goes a long way to begin to repair the damage to their businesses.”
S.T.O.R.M. or Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management is a company created by Ben Nelson and Tracy Woody of Smith Point. Nelson was a political power broker in Chambers County, and Woody is a local Justice of the Peace.
“We are honored to have helped expose this political deal and the damage it has done to the Texas oyster crop,” says Feldman.
During this long fight oyster companies were afraid to plant the material needed to create new oyster beds. The oyster population in Galveston Bay was already at risk because of recent tropical weather.
State Rep. Ryan Guillen lost his Chairmanship of the Culture, Recreation and Tourism Committee this year, but he’s sure still interested in commercial oyster fishing.
Curious, since none of District 31 is in oyster harvesting territory.
Last week, the plot thickened.
Chambers County Justice of the Peace, Tracy Woody, was called to testify to Guillen’s old committee as a representative of the oyster industry to proclaim a crisis.
There’s no doubt the oyster crop is in trouble, but I wonder if Guillen has shared some salient facts with his fellow lawmakers about his bill’s supporter Judge Woody.
Woody and his oyster company S.T.O.R.M is right now being sued by the State of Texas for trying to illegally monopolize the Galveston Bay oyster crop with a backroom lease deal involving his home town friends on the Chambers Liberty County Navigation District.
Documents Woody provided to the legislative committee claimed members of the oyster advisory committee of Parks and Wildlife are controlled by one oyster company, coincidentally the very one leading a lawsuit to expose the smelly oyster lease S.T.O.R.M is trying to use to take over 23,000 acres of prime oyster territory.
When State Representative Dennis Bonnen pressed Woody for evidence the companies are connected, Woody stated he didn’t know…
And he’s a Judge?
We already know the Chambers Liberty County Navigation District has been hiding documents on the deal with Woody that every taxpayer has a right to see.
That’s why Texas lawmakers should let the courts deal with Mr. Woody.
Texas Courts are unanimous so far that Woody’s lease deal with the home town bureaucrats is illegal, but I bet you didn’t know who has agreed to be a fact witness for Woody in his scheme to take over the oyster biz!
State Rep. Ryan Guillen.
Wonder what this Rio Grande Valley politician knows about a lease deal in Chambers County?
Wonder if his constituents in South Texas know he’s agreed to help Woody and S.T.O.R.M in their legal case?
The potential for a conflict of interest is hard to ignore. While Guillen is trying to help Woody pull off his oyster play in court, he’s also the author of legislation that competitors say could make the lease deal legal.
The oyster bill will be heard in Committee Tuesday, March 28th. in Austin.
Maybe Rep. Guillen should explain his relationship to S.T.O.R.M and Judge Woody and his special interest in who gets to fish in Galveston Bay!
Maybe he should explain how that helps anyone who voted for Rep. Guillen!
When they hatched their plan to take over part of Galveston Bay, Jeri’s seafood figured they had it all figured out.
First, they created a company with a new name that sounded so environmentally friendly. The Chambers County Judge was their buddy. The Chambers Liberty County Navigation District in
Anahuac would sign a deal, even if it was chump change for the millions they would make.
One problem. S.T.O.R.M. likely counted they could fight the legal battle that could happen in a nice Chambers County courtroom, home cooking.
The Texas Supreme Court has now ruled there will be no home cooking in this fight, denying a desperate last appeal from the decision of a Galveston court. Judge Lonnie Cox ruled the lease
used to hijack the oyster crop was illegal.
It is clear the folks on the Chambers Liberty County Navigation District know their little plan is unraveling.
Last Monday, oyster companies along Galveston Bay filed a multi-million- dollar lawsuit against present and former navigation commissioners, after all they cut the deal after secret
On Tuesday, the commissioners had a chance to say enough is enough.
Instead they voted to hire a lawyer for the legal fight ahead.
After a 45-minute closed session, the newest commissioner thought it was time to get out of Dodge, or Anahuac in this case. James Sterling is a good guy. Smart move.
Houston Attorney Cris Feldman has labeled the CLCND the Corrupt Liberty-Chambers Navigation District and plans a deep dive into the Anahuac good ole’ boys club.
Happy new year.
The two-year long battle over the fishing rights in Galveston Bay could finally be settled Monday afternoon in a Galveston County District Courtroom showdown.
Oyster fisherman are trying to invalidate a controversial lease giving control of 23,000 acres of Galveston Bay bottom to one oyster company.
The lease deal between the Chambers Liberty County Navigation District and a company called S.T.O.R.M., has been exposed as a “secret backroom political deal. The 23,000 acres of Galveston Bay bottom were leased for a mere $1.50 an acre. S.T.O.R.M. now claims anyone else in the area is trespassing.
“Galveston Bay belongs to the people of Texas”, says Lisa Halili of Prestige Oysters. “The livelihoods of thousands of families are at stake, and my family will fight to the end to stop this
illegal takeover of public resources and save Galveston Bay for all Texans.”
The case has statewide implications. Judge Cox previously stopped S.T.O.R.M. from stopping other oyster fisherman from entering the area during the legal battle. Oyster companies are afraid to invest in leases and the State has virtually put a halt to transplanting oysters into safer areas of the Bay.
“If a private company can take over public resources in Galveston Bay, every bay in Texas is vulnerable,” says Wayne Dolcefino, President of Dolcefino Consulting.
The legal battle is slated for 1:30 pm in Galveston.
The latest meeting of the Chambers-Liberty County Navigation District ended with an argument. Oyster fisherman called Chambers County Judge Tracy Woody a jerk, and he called them squatters who are trespassing in Galveston Bay.
Let’s deal with the squatter charge first. For decades the waters of Galveston Bay have been open to everyone, but the state has leased some bay bottom to private oyster fisherman. They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars creating reefs where the oysters are born and grow. You would think Judge Woody would know those people have leases granted by the State of Texas that they pay a pretty penny for. To call them squatters is an insult to the families who have invested their life savings and make their living providing the oysters we all love to eat. They don’t claim to own the bottom of the bay. So Johnny Halili of Prestige Oysters gave Woody a piece of his mind. Calling him a “jerk.”
Actually the biggest jerks may be the appointed bureaucrats of the Chambers Liberty County Navigation District, who entered into secret negotiations and then gave Woody’s oyster company the sole control of 23,000 acres of Galveston Bay, all of it, for $1.50 cents an acre. The deal violated the Texas Open Meetings Act, and cheated taxpayers. Even if you buy the theory that the Navigation District, not the people of Texas own the bay bottom, the idea they would give it away without a competition to get the most money for the public is gross negligence. Of course, the whole notion of unelected bureaucrats being able to impose taxes is probably jerky too.
Back to the jerk question. Woody spent much of the morning in Anahuac fighting for his oyster business, but wait a second, don’t taxpayers pay him to be a judge?
They do. And they are getting the shaft.
Dolcefino Consulting got the records. In a year and a half, do you know how many days in court Judge Woody spent hearing civil disputes?
ONE DAY. IN A YEAR AND A HALF.
As a Justice of the Peace, Woody also reads charges against suspects. We checked that too. In a year and a half, another 24 days. Although it was just a couple of hours at a time.
So Woody has plenty of time to fight to take over Galveston Bay and the natural resources that belong to all of you. He is getting paid by taxpayers.
Apparently that waste of money doesn’t bother the Chambers County Commissioners Court. Apparently giving away 23,000 acres of the bottom of Galveston Bay for a song doesn’t bother the bureaucrats on the Navigation District, who should be elected if the politicians there really cared about taxpayers.
I dare the local Anahuac paper, the Progress, to check the records for themselves. Explain to your readers why this is such a big secret there.
Is Woody a jerk? You be the judge. After all it’s your money.
The Third Court of Appeals in Austin has spoken. It is time for taxpayers to demand the Chambers Liberty County Navigation District stop their illegal scheme to occupy 23,000 acres of Galveston Bay.
If not, the commissioners should be removed.
The court delivered a clear message. The CLCND overstepped its authority when it gave a lease to a company called STORM to control the harvesting of oysters.
And the ruling has significant financial consequences. The navigation district may face huge damages for occupying the territory. The appeals court cites state law that anyone who unlawfully possesses a fish is liable for the value of the fish unlawfully possessed.
For CLCND that could mean millions in potential damages.
For STORM it could mean trouble too. The company has tried to keep other oyster companies with state leases out of the area. They seek to control parts of the bay where public reefs are located.
It is time for the Chambers County District Attorney to launch a criminal investigation into possible criminal violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act. There is evidence the Commissioners violated the law in their secret dealings with STORM.
“If the CLCND does not call an emergency meeting to stop this now, it is possible taxpayers in Liberty and Chambers County face a real risk of having to pay for this scheme,” says Wayne Dolcefino of Dolcefino Consulting.
This is the third ruling in recent weeks against the navigation district. There are already calls for the legislature to investigate the need for the agency.
The messages are loud and clear. The question is simple. Are the politicians in Anahuac prepared to explain themselves to taxpayers?
We have always suspected the deal to lease 23,000 acres of Galveston Bay to just one company for oyster harvesting was a classic case of home cooking.
Now we have the proof.
The General Manager of the Chambers Liberty County Navigation District (CLCND) admits under oath that officials of Jeri’s Seafood were allowed to be part of executive sessions closed to the public to present their oyster plans.
“The Texas Attorney General needs to send a task force of Open Meetings experts to Anahuac to help these yahoos,” says Wayne Dolcefino, the spokesman for oyster companies challenging the backroom oyster deal.
CLCND’s top executive Mary Beth Stengler also claimed she didn’t even know there were private companies given state permits to harvest oysters in the area, and never bothered to seek any competitive bids because she didn’t know there were any other oyster companies in Chambers County.
“The really sad thing for taxpayers is that these commissioners were played like a cheap fiddle, unless there was something else going on.”
CLCND leased the 23,000 acres to Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management (STORM), the company Jeri’s Seafood created for just $3.00 an acre.
The State of Texas has sued CLCND and STORM for cooking up the “illegal” lease, and STORM has already spent thousands of dollars lobbying legislators and paying legal bills.
“This is what happens when local bureaucrats let home cooking interfere with the best interest of taxpayers,” says Dolcefino.