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.