Don’t ask me if I am a proponent of eminent domain. I am not. I think it stinks. My dad, a retired military veteran, worked his butt off as a barber in Tye cutting hair to pay for his dream of owning land. The state-sanctioned taking of 6.8 of the 118 acres that he worked so hard for is almost unbearable. But, there is little our family can do about it. I know that.
Anyone who is not in the thick of this thinks it is all about money. It is not. It is about respect, honor and trust. It is about making sure contracts are honored. It is to ensure Lone Star isn’t asking to take more land than necessary or traipsing all over your land with big machines.
Anyone who thinks this is just about 5 holdout landowners in Jones County is fooling themselves.
Lone Star Transmission is part of NextEra Energy, a Florida-based Fortune 500 company with 2010 revenues of more than $15 billion. They are one of several companies taking land and it’s not likely to stop.
NextEra isn’t the only company reaping the benefits of business-friendly Texas and its eminent domain policy and it won’t be the last. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 196 of the 254 Texas counties are considered rural. If farmers, ranchers, country folk aren’t going through this they will likely know someone who will. You need to know that Lone Star, NextEra Energy, is taking your land, no matter what.
But, this is about what is right and the way it is done. When my elderly mother calls me in a panic saying that she has received a certified letter and asks if she should sign for it, I have to wonder. When that letter from Lone Star Austin attorneys Jackson Walker L.L.P. clearly states, “Chad Cowan, County Attorney in Jones County is Lone Star’s local counsel,” I have to ask what is the point of stating that?
Who is mom and other landowners dealing with, the county attorney whose salary she pays with her taxes? Or Chad Cowan, who specializes in criminal law, not civil law which is what these hearings entail? How is she supposed to separate the two? How is Cowan?
Why does Lone Star take great pains to point out that their local counsel is “THE” county attorney instead of just a local attorney? There must be some motivation for making a point of this. There always is.
It is murky water. I am keenly aware that state law does not prohibit county attorneys from having a private practice. They are in small towns. They need to make extra money. But Chad Cowan lists in no local phone books a private practice. He lists his only office as in the Jones County Courthouse.
He confirmed as much in the Abilene Reporter-News recently. “In an interview, Cowan said he has done nothing differently from other county attorneys as far as having a private practice based in his county office. “I operate my office in the same manner it’s been for at least the last two attorneys,” Cowan said,” according to the local paper.
It doesn’t seem right that he could use his public taxpayer-funded office for his private practice. That does not seem right. But, that is not for me to decide. I have asked for formal investigations from the State Bar of Texas, the Texas Attorney General’s criminal investigation division, Jones County District Attorney Billy Edwards and the F.B.I.
It is every Texan’s right, through the Public Information Act, to formally ask to see records of public officials.
I have made formal requests for e-mails, phone records, and all documents in and out of Cowan’s Courthouse taxpayer-funded office. Judge Dale Spurgin has this request.
I have also asked for Chad Cowan’s taxpayer-funded salary. I believe, if Cowan is an honorable man, he will tell the people of Jones County what Lone Star is paying him. Ask him. Compare the salaries.
It is my belief that doing the right, ethical, legal, thing means more than money. The easy road would have been to take Lone Star’s offer and call it quits. I was not taught that.
Here is what really happens to landowners. When Lone Star or other entities do not agree on contracts or price, Lone Star will file suit against you. They don’t have to do so but they will to keep on their timeline.
If you want to defend land that you already own, you have to justify by an appraisal how much you want. It costs about $6,000 for an appraisal. If you hire an attorney that will cost $250 to $300 an hour. You do the math.
You will go before a judge and three commissioners who are paid by Lone Star or other companies doing the condemning. They pay about $100 an hour. Or, as Lone Star attorney Sue Ayers stated recently in front of District Judge Brooks Hagler, some commissioners were paid for 8 hours of work – $800 – though they only worked about two hours.
After hearing this, it became clearer why Cowan likely presented to all landowners the same six potential commissioners who had close relationships with him.
“X is the son of my assistant.” I do not know if that is the assistant in his tax-payer-funded office or not. “X is the husband of a friend of my wife. X is my neighbor. X is a client. X and X I know from growing up in Hamlin,” Ayers forwarded to me in an e-mail.
Is that illegal? No, it is not. Is it unethical? That is for the State Bar of Texas to decide. Landowners can choose other commissioners. Their only qualification is to live in the county.
But, when these six names are presented to my elderly mother in a certified letter that says, “Chad Cowan, County Attorney in Jones County is Lone Star’s local counsel. Chad has provided us with this list of Jones County residents who are qualified to serve as special commissioners,” I have to wonder about the motivation.
Who is presenting these potential commissioners, the Chad Cowan who is paid by Jones County taxpayers or the Chad Cowan being paid by Lone Star? How do you distinguish between the two?
There are many older, wiser landowners who have said my efforts are fruitless and in their experience, nothing will change. They may be right but I do know that doing the right, honorable thing is always the best thing. And you will not know if things can change unless you try.
(Clara Herrera grew up in Tye and Merkel and is a graduate of Merkel High School and the University of Texas at Austin.)