The year’s Top 10 local stories: forensic audit to Little White Cross
Published 2:51 pm Thursday, December 31, 2015
2015 was a year of citizen involvement in Mid- and South Jefferson County. A petition drive forced a forensic audit in Port Arthur, people rallied around a cross in the park in Port Neches and activists sued to stop the Edison Square housing development. It also was a year of change, with a new city manager coming to Port Arthur, more companies wanting to build LNG plants and Christus Health making major changes in St. Mary Hospital. Here are the Top 10 news stories of 2015, as decided by the new staff at The Port Arthur News.
1) Petition forces forensic audit in PA
Port Arthur residents’ pleas for the city to take a deep dive look into its finances were heard during 2015, when, in February, a petition drive with enough signatures to force the city’s hand was submitted.
After failing to gain the needed signatures in December 2014, a supplemental petition was circulated around town, and was successful in garnering an additional 154 signatures to reach the number needed.
With the support of new City Manager Brian McDougal, who started to work in January 2015, the drive gained traction in April when City Council bowed to the wishes of the citizen with a unanimous vote to go ahead and commission a forensic audit into the city’s finances.
Since then the city has allocated $100,000 to fund what will be the first of a three-phase audit over the next three years, and a committee made up of city employees selected a firm to conduct the audit.
The first phase includes the areas citizens asked for in their petition: the city’s housing, human resources, finance and public works departments.
The next step is for the city and the auditing firm to perform a scope of work.
McDougal said the city hopes to begin the forensic audit process in January.
2) Christus St. Mary transformed
Christus St. Mary Hospital was transformed into a short-stay center, providing outpatient chemotherapy and infusion services, emergency room access, radiology and laboratory services, and surgical capabilities.
Five departments relocated to Christus St. Elizabeth Hospital in Beaumont. Patients that are “high-risk” or need prolonged treatment will most likely be transferred to St. Elizabeth or another hospital. “Underutilized services” being relocated include obstetrics, neonatal intensive care, pediatric, cardiovascular and general medicine inpatient services.
The St. Mary campus will continue to operate the existing emergency room as it does today and it will not change how the hospital handles patients in crisis situations.
Paul Trevino, CEO of Christus Southeast Texas Health System, said the new “community-centric approach” — that comes with an initial $10 million investment — will serve as the Launchpad for Christus’ plan to bring new healthcare locations to communities including Port Arthur, Mid-County, Beaumont, Silsbee, and Orange.
A Micro Hospital off of FM 365 will be constructed by 2018 to meet the needs of Mid- and South-County, providing emergency, outpatient and physician services at a lower cost with limited beds.
3) City employees caught with hand in till
Port Arthur’s new city manager Brian McDougal had only been on the job a few months when a Jefferson County grand jury indicted a former city of Port Arthur employee for theft.
Shauwn Williams, 41, was sentenced to a suspended two-year jail term for felony theft by a public servant in connection with a three-month period when she submitted fraudulent lawn care invoices totaling around $7,420 for work never done.
At the time, Williams was a temporary employee with the city’s Housing Department.
Williams wasn’t the only city employee accused to wrongdoing in connection with their jobs during 2015.
In March, Sharon Shelvin was terminated from her position as court clerk after an investigation discovered evidence of theft of municipal court fines and tampering with official court documents.
In October, three more city employees were fired after criminal investigations pointed to job-related misdeeds.
Carlton Edwards, Steve and Randall Davis admitted they had stolen fuel using city-issued gas cards. Edwards, a superintendent with the streets department, has since been indicted by the grand jury.
Investigations are continuing and more arrests could be forthcoming, McDougal said.
The city also in 2015 instituted a fraud hotline, for people to call with tips if they have information about criminal wrongdoing among city employees.
4) LNG export becomes new industry
The area’s LNG plants — Golden Pass LNG, Cheniere Energy, and Sempra Energy — should fuel growth along the area’s waterways.
Golden Pass LNG is continuing with its project to add exporting capabilities to the world-class facility in Sabine Pass.
“Golden Pass is set to move the needle with this $10 billion proposed investment,” said Bill Davis, project executive. According to a third party study undertaken for the company, 45,000 direct and indirect jobs across the nation will be created during the five-year construction phase.
Golden Pass’ LNG plant is to be constructed in mid 2016.
The liquefied natural gas project will bring an estimated 9,000 direct construction jobs over a five-year construction period with peak employment reaching about 3,000 jobs. The project is expected to create the equivalent of about 45,000 direct and indirect jobs across the country during the construction phase, according to a study done by The Perryman Group.
Cheniere Energy, meanwhile, is on the verge of making history by building the first LNG export terminal in North America in more than 40 years in Sabine Pass.
The monumental event is five years in the making.
Katie Pipkin, senior vice president, Business Development & Communications, said about 4,000 workers are on site for peak construction.
Sempra Energy’s subsidiary, Port Arthur LNG, is making strides toward the company’s proposed natural gas liquefaction and export facility in Port Arthur.
The San Diego-based energy company estimates construction will start in 2017 pending regulatory approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The proposed liquefication project is designed to include: Two natural gas liquefication trains with a total export capability of approximately 10 million tons per annum, or 1.4 billion cubic feet per day; two 160,000-cubic-meter storage tanks; marine facilities for vessel berthing and loading; natural gas liquids and refrigerant strorage; natural gas liquids and refrigerant storage; feed gas pre-treatment; truck loading and unloading areas; and combustion turbine generators for self-generation of electrical power.
The project means additional jobs for the area. During construction an estimated 3,000 jobs would be created, and 200 permanent jobs for ongoing operations, said Anya McInnis, spokeswoman for Sempra.
5) Oil workers go on strike at Motiva
Last winter union employees at Port Arthur’s Motiva Enterprises refinery reached the end of their contract without an agreement, and opted to go on strike for the first time since 1982, when U.S. oil workers walked off their jobs to protest working conditions.
It would be a month before the striking oil worker’s union, the United Steel Workers, ratified a new contract, and went back to work.
During that month, more than 5,000 USW workers nationwide opted to strike, walking out of a chemical plant, a cogeneration complex and nine U.S. refineries that produce 13 percent of the nation’s fuel capacity.
The vote on the agreement, taken by 500 Motiva United Steel Workers members, was unanimous and marked the first time all local USW members voted in favor of a contract agreement in 30-plus years.
Union members of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Office and Professional Employees International Union voted separately.
All were Motiva employees.
Highlights of the new Motiva agreement included health and safety issues related to fatigue, preservation and preservation of the retrogression clause, and a promise to start a conversation about the use of contractors.
6) PA hires new city manager
2015 started with a new Port Arthur City Manager. Brian McDougal took over the reins of the city on Jan. 19, the same day the city celebrated the life and teachings of Martin Luther King Jr.
McDougal, at the time, said he was pleasantly surprised to see the number of people participating in the annual event.
McDougal quickly got to work while then Acting City Manager John Comeaux prepared for his last weeks on the job.
McDougal came to Port Arthur by way of Oklahoma, where he was city manager in Shawnee. Prior to his tenure there, he was city manager in Athens, Valdosta, Royston and Remerton, all Georgia cities.
Early on, McDougal identified key issues that needed immediate attention including the city’s water losses from aging infrastructure and the regular annual audit, which was nearing completion, but running months behind.
He also took steps to ensure the city embarked on a citizens-led quest to have a forensic audit done on the city’s finances.
“City finances are important in every city and having public trust in a city’s finances is important in every city,” he said in February. “Not having the audit ready on time is a very god way to lose a city’s trust in its finances.”
McDougal was also introduced to his first Mardi Gras celebration, and the annual Chamber of Commerce banquet.
7) Cross in park gains support in PN
A 10-foot tall white cross that has stood in Port Neches Park for the past 45 years became the focus of attention for an atheist group and Christians alike during 2015.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation contacted Port Neches city officials objecting to the display of the cross on the public property as an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.
Shortly after the issue came to light a group of locals responded by showing their support of the cross by making and distributing small, white crosses.
Little White Crosses Mid-County group grew from the original handful of people, volunteers and donations came forward and upwards of 10,000 crosses have been distributed across the area and beyond.
The city’s legal counsel is currently reviewing the issue with the cross at the park.
8) Edison Square dispute continues
A group of citizens residing around the proposed Edison Square apartment complex who hoped to put a stop to the project were not successful in Jefferson County District Court in 2015.
Donald Floyd, presiding judge with the 172nd Judicial District Court of Jefferson Count, rendered his opinion in the case that originally centered on a zoning dispute between the 12th Street area residents where developers planned to build the apartment community for the elderly and handicapped.
After hearing arguments in the case on Aug. 28, Floyd ruled his court had no jurisdiction over claims brought by Port Arthur residents Reginald Trainer, Efrain Avendano, Paul Hulin and Herman Leginston.
Floyd dismissed the case on grounds that the plaintiffs did not demonstrate they had exhausted their administrative remedies under state law and the city’s zoning ordinance, and that circumstances of the chase had changed making it moot.
Floyd’s decision came after hearing the case for the second time in two years. He was asked to determine whether the city had overreached its authority in issuing a zoning change that would allow developer The Itex Company to build 128 townhouse style apartments at a 15-acre site at 3501 12th St., where the old Edison school once stood.
Itex was initially granted a zoning change from two family residential to multiple family residential.
The city’s attorney argued the court had no jurisdiction in the case because the developer had changed course and decided to build duplexes rather than townhouses after the residents’ appeal to the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustments was upheld.
The city argued that because the duplexes fell within the two family zoning restriction, the matter was moot.
The case has been appealed and will be held in Corpus Christi later this year.
9) Donald Trump visits Beaumont
Thousands of people converged upon Ford Park Arena for a chance to see presidential hopeful Donald Trump in November.
Fans donned “Make America Great Again” shirts, caps and signs and cheered as Trump approached the podium to the tune of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Going To Take It.”
Trump addressed the issue of illegal immigration and spoke about building a wall and how one day the illegals that left would come back to America the legal way.
The event was one day after the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris. Trump asked for a moment of silence for those victims. Afterward he said the attack would have had a different outcome had the gun laws been different in Paris.
Supporters of Trump told media they liked the fact the presidential hopeful isn’t a politician but a man who knows how to make money while another was in favor of building a wall and sending illegal immigrants back to their native country.
A small group of protestors outside the arena held signs saying that Trump is the reason America need a change and signs in support of Hispanic and Latin American military members who served the U.S.
10) PN apartment plan stirs controversy
A dispute regarding variances for a luxury apartment complex led to a lawsuit between the city of Port Neches and its Zoning Board of Adjustment.
The Port Neches Zoning Board of Adjustment granted three variances to Jeff Ahktar of Amron Housing Group for the construction of an apartment complex to be located at 3031 Eighth St. The proposed complex will be a mix of two and three story buildings with 140 units. The variances included going above the two-story height requirement, to place more than 12 attached dwellings units under one roof and go beyond the acreage density.
The zoning board learned the mayor and city council filed a writ of certiorari on Nov. 19 stating “the board were illegal in that each variance exceeds the limits placed on the construction of multifamily housing units” by city code.
The writ was filed in the Jefferson County Court at Law No. 1.
The ZBA is being represented by Jane Leger of Dugas Leger Law Firm.
Legal fees for the city versus the zoning board lawsuit are not yet known, as the issue is dependent on a variety of factors. Either way the city is paying for both sides of the is