‘Rent-a-voters’ sign off on hundreds of millions of dollars in public debt

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Trailer in a Vacant Field

Seven voters in three special districts in Montgomery County approved $680 million in public bond sales Tuesday and elected five board members in one district, all of whom ran uncontested.

Voters such as these are described a ‘rent-a-voters’ by critics.

Indeed, in one case these voters included a couple that did not obtain their registration until October 13, less than the 30 days required by state statute.

Two of the districts list their address as the Coats Rose law firm in Houston, one of the major players in the special district industry. The Muller Law Group, a developer law firm in Sugar Land, handles the last of the three districts.

All of the voters registered in their respective districts in the past three-and-a-half months, approving public debt as the state investigates allegations of “rent-a-voters,” or individuals who are placed on otherwise vacant tracts of land by developers to establish the rules for new residential developments.

Two of Tuesday’s voters list home addresses different than the voting jurisdiction in which they voted. The voters included a 40-year-old couple, while voters in one district included two twenty-year-olds. Three of the voters shared the last name of Starr.

They all lived in temporary homes placed on land within their districts. In two of the three districts, there were no homes within sight of their dwellings, and notice of the election was posted on the remote premises, advising whoever was doing the notice to “please leave posted until November 8, 2017,” the day after the election.

  • Montgomery County Municipal Utility District No. 121 was created in 2007, overseen by The Muller Law Firm. The voters were Brandon Adkins, 24, who lists an address in Spring as his home and Nick Harrington, 29, from Corinth, outside of Denton. Adkins and Harrington approved $216,060,000 in bonds for roads, infrastructure, and playgrounds.
  • East Montgomery County Municipal Utility District No. 7 voters were Cassie and Carl Starr, who list 18909 Genova Bay Ct. in New Caney as their address. Their voter registration was effective October 13, according to Montgomery County records. The address on the registration, 18909 Genova Bay, is unoccupied, according to the Montgomery County Appraisal District, and is being developed by Friendswood Development Co. The Starrs voted to issue $245,900,000 in bonds for roads, infrastructure, and playgrounds. The district was created in 2005.
  • Magnolia East Municipal Utility District voters were Logan Brosch, 20, Collin Starr, 21, and Brianna Phillips, 20. They authorized $218 million in bonds and elected five directors, who ran unopposed.

All votes were unanimous. A call to a home where Harrington has lived was not answered. The other voters could not be reached for comment.

The Secretary of State Elections Director Keith Ingram referred a complaint to the AG’s office in July alleging developers and their law firms hired temporary voters housed in trailers on vacant land to vote the will of the developers in violation of the state’s voter residency laws.

“I don’t talk to the media,” Ingram said in response to a request for comment.

In August, a similar complaint was referred to the AG’s office for investigation, this time by Texas Secretary of State Interim Legal Director Caroline Geppert.

Geppert did not return a call or email.

Complaints sent to the Secretary of State’s office are considered for credibility and merit, said Sam Taylor, spokesman for the office.

“If we see something that looks like it warrants investigation, we forward it to the attorney general’s office,” Taylor said. In this case, the complaints regarding illegal voting are worth pursuing.

David Maxwell, the director of law enforcement at the Attorney General’s office, did not respond to a request for comment.

The notion of policing temporary voters poses a contradiction for Maxwell’s office, which has in the past prosecuted voters who move into a district to vote.

In 2016, Woodlands resident Adrian Heath was sentenced to three years in prison for moving into a road utility district in order to vote in its board election in 2010.

But lawmakers are widely in favor of the special districts. Last session, they approved 50 special districts in 19 counties.

The practice of moving a couple of voters onto developer land to vote the interest of the developers has been going on for decades, a practice that former State Sen. John Carona claimed was a “creative way to comply with the law” in a column for the Dallas Morning News in 2001.

Proponents of municipal utility districts and other special growth-related districts contend that they are needed to keep development costs and housing costs reasonable. Foes contend that municipalities can offer the same services — water, electricity, and roads — at a lesser cost if they elect to do so.

“They keep the house price low, then ding you on the services for water and other utilities,” said Hugh Coleman, a Denton County commissioner who has crusaded against special districts. “And in the city or county, if your bills go too high, you can go to your councilman and complain. With districts, the directors are generally agents of the developer.”

Coleman helped draft a measure in the last legislative session that would make the board of special districts, among other things, meet within the boundaries of the district it represents and make video and audio copies of the meetings available to the public. The measure failed, as did a bill that would require people voting in special districts to live in those districts for at least a year.

16 COMMENTS

  1. been going on for years. developer sets up a special district, MUD, WCID or such, gets some friends to move onto the property, holds an election to pay for infrastructure, and then the future home buyers pay the developer back via bonds.

  2. How does one become one of these “rent a voters?” I wouldn’t mind living rent free!!!
    .
    But seriously: MUDs and LIDs are a result of the strangulation of local governments by austerity-driven State laws. The State Legislature wins votes by forcing local governments to lower taxes and crimp their revenue. Then they wonder why those local governments jettison services (like Levees and utilities) to other organizations that don’t have the transparency and accountability.
    .
    It’s a sad, sad reality.

  3. MUD districts offer free rent on large parcels of land for 2 registered voters. One acts as election judge as well.
    These MUD voters will vote as they are “suggested ” to. The development company gets their board, their bonds, and will soon begin development of the land, and move the voter to another parcel that will be voted on in a year or two.

    Eventually the debt is paid via MUD fees, increased property taxes, and so forth.
    I should know…… did it for about 10 years.

  4. Great article! Thank you! This also just happened in Houston. The old Pine Crest Golf Course is being developed by MetroNational and Meritage Homes (near Gessner and Clay Road). Nobody lives there except for the mysterious voters who got $$$$ bonds approved. Even worse, 800 homes are being built there and it is a floodplain! MetroNational is a big donor to mayor Turner and council member Brenda Stardig. The golf course property is in her district. This has GOT to be stopped.

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