|According to Cameron County Pct.1 Constable Haracio Zamora, he has directed his Deputies and Code Enforcement to unconditionally enforce these long ago posted rules within Isla Blanca Park.|
On July 5th, 2012 the Cameron County Commissioners and Judge Carlos Cascos addressed the recently re-introduced concerns the Surfrider Foundation South Texas Chapter had brought up about the condition of and lack of enforcement of litter laws within Cameron County's Isla Blanca Park on South Padre Island, Texas! County Judge Cascos invited all the parties and entities that had jurisdiction within the park. This included Cameron County Parks and Recreation who manages the park, Pct. 1 Constable Horacio Zamora and Port Isabel Justice of the Peace Judge Bennie Ochoa III who handle the law enforcement within the parks. In fact, there is a great article in the Brownsville Herald today about the meeting and what was discussed by Steve Clark. However, I want to go into a little more detail as to what did happen at the meeting.
First off I would like to thank the 1,289 individuals who signed and commented on the Surfrider Foundation South Texas Litter Enforcement Petition which will be closed as of now because every single signature sparks an email to the Judge, Constable Zamora and Commissioner Benavides and they obviously have gotten the point. In addition a very ecstatic and humble thank you goes out to those who showed up for the meeting on the day after the 4th of July. It was a great turnout with representatives from Surfrider Foundation South Texas Chapter, Friends of Isla Blanca, The Isla Blanca All-stars, South Padre Island Chamber of Commerce, Valley Proud Environmental Council, Audubon Society and other concerned individuals and beach users. They all took the time to speak before the Judge and Commissioners and make their concerns and ideas known and the Surfrider Foundation South Texas Chapter is truly grateful for their time, efforts and input! These awesome groups helped drive home the message that cleaning up our beaches is great and necessary but continuing to do so without any sort of real enforcement of litter laws will not change the situation inside Isla Blanca Park because the attitudes of the users will not be changed. As Walter Birdwell from the Isla Blanca All-stars put it, "It's time to take the 2 X 4 and hit the mule between the eyes and issue fines." Statements like Walter's overcame the spin and ended up with positive progress.
As far as the different county departments that spoke about what efforts they are undertaking to address the problem.... well that is where the spin and quite honestly the disappointment started. There were a lot of numbers provided by the Parks and Recreation Department and the Constable Division and just more confusion from Judge Bennie Ochoa III.
Parks and Rec. provided the number of trash barrels that were in the park, when cleanup was done and when follow ups on emptying those cans happened which boiled down to cleanup starting daily at 5AM every morning and the barrels were emptied one to two times a day. Parks Director Javier Mendez did go on to address ideas that the department were looking into such as mounting the beach trash barrels on stands above the sand and putting liners in them along with switching out the current steel barrels with plastic ones. Great idea! This keeps the trash barrels in place, keeps them from being dumped over, allows for easy emptying and alleviates the problem of having to move them back with the tides where they would be further away from beach users to travel to to dispose of trash! Mendez also brought up the need to add more personnel and smaller equipment like ATV's to make this job easier to accomplish as large vehicles would be impossible to get on the beaches after they have become crowded. I agree and will say that Javier's presentation was the most productive and honest one of the morning.
|The current majority of trash barrels in isla Blanca are rusty reclaimed chemical and oil barrels.|
|The new style trash barrels that Cameron County Parks and Recreation are introducing into Isla Blanca. The ones on the actual beach will be mounted on elevated stands.|
Now I want to address the enforcement part of the meeting and I want to preface it with an explanation of mine and Surfrider Foundation's intentions. We have absolutely no desire to pick on or try to stir animosity toward Constable Zamora, his Deputies or Judge Bennie Ochoa III. We live, work and raise our families on South Padre Island and we depend on the positive perception of our beaches. The appearance, health and safety of our beaches directly affect tourism which brings us income to provide for our families and the elimination of trash on our beaches, especially glass, aluminum cans and used diapers, provide for a safer environment for our children to enjoy and play on. Tourists do not recognize the "line in the sand" between what beaches are controlled by Cameron County and those controlled by the City of South Padre Island. They just see either a filthy beach or a clean one. Furthermore, it is the sworn duty of those that enforce the laws within these parks to do so unconditionally and effectively. Critical comments on their performance is warranted and necessary for a better quality of life for residents and visitors. Finally, I am going to be honest.
Constable Zamora, who is an elected county official, provided positive news but at the same time misrepresented the problem within Isla Blanca Park. The Pct.1 Constable Department has 9 Deputies that patrol Isla Blanca, Andy Bowie, E.K. Atwood and County Beach Accesses 5&6 24 hours a day in shifts of three Deputies. Two Deputies patrol the north end where there are the most calls on petty theft, assaults and disorderly conduct problems and one that is assigned to Isla Blanca where the call are much fewer. The three (yes only 3) Code enforcement officers are split the same way. I do not disagree with or question his allocation of resources whatsoever as I do know the challenges of the northern Cameron County Beaches. There is also no doubt in my mind that he is way understaffed in this aspect. He needs more Deputies and Code Enforcement on the beach and that was exactly our question; how do we get them and how can we help you get them? Of course that came down to funding which will be addressed later.
He did inform the Commissioners Court that since the Surfrider Foundation South Texas Chapter Letter to the Editor that was published in local newspapers, he has directed his Deputies to start issuing more litter citations if trash is observed within their area. Since that directive was issued this past weekend, there were 30 citations for glass and litter issued! Good news! He added that these citations came with confrontational situations which pose a problem for his Code Enforcement Officers and Deputies. Of course it does1 You just caught someone doing wrong. Sorry, but that goes with the territory. Again, I understand this and the issue of increased personnel to deal with it must again be resolved.
|Isla Blanca Park. July 6th, 2012.|
What I did take exception to was a series of photos he showed that were allegedly taken on mornings before the Parks and Recreation Department had a chance to do their cleanup (similar in time of day, angle and distance from the beach as the picture above) which showed clean beaches from the road that traverses Isla Blanca Park. They were in full daylight, so if Parks and Recreation are truly beginning their cleanups at 5AM the either he is not being completely honest or Parks and Rec. are nit being honest. This is points out one of the most obvious problems the county faces, self preservation of elected officials, appointees and a severe lack of communication between departments. He also claimed that the week that supposedly sparked our Chapter's and others' complaints was actually an anomaly caused by the high tides of Tropical Storm Debbie. He claimed that because of the beach closures up north at County Accesses 5 & 6 due to the tides, people filled Isla Blanca when it would not have normally been so and the increase in people created the increase in litter. This is completely untrue! First off, the first morning of the closure (Wednesday, June 20th, International Surfing Day) Isla Blanca was practically empty but yet still trashed with glass and other litter. Secondly, anyone who spends a good amount of time at Isla Blanca Park, and there was a room full of them, knows that from mid-June to the end of August, if the weather is good and it is scorchingly hot in the upper valley, as is the case 98% of the time, Isla Blanca Park hits its capacity at 2 or 3 PM every Saturday and Sunday, the gates are actually closed because there is no parking left and the litter fills the beaches. With all due respect to the Constable, this was just an attempt to cover his rear-end and paint the Surfrider Foundation and others as over-reacting to what he was trying to paint as a minimal problem. It brings no joy to me or Surfrider Foundation to draw attention to our trash issues on our beaches and it is not done on a whim and just to cause trivial problems for those that should be addressing the situation.
|Here is the reality of the situation on a typical day at Isla Blanca.....in the morning.|
The final County Official up was Port Isabel Justice of the Peace Bennie Ochoa III, the top tier in the enforcement aspect of the County Litter Policy. When asked by Judge Cascos what he did when he was presented with a litter citation from the Constable's Department, his response was, " I give them a lecture and fine them between one and two hundred dollars." After some prodding by the commissioners and a comment that a fine between $100 and $200 would definitely get people's attention, Judge Ochoa clarified that what he actually meant was that he lectured them and fined them between $1 and $200. I am not kidding! Of course this sparked a comment from the Commissioners that they understood he was late to the meeting but he was obviously missing the point. Friends of Isla Blanca Representative Mary Helen Flores then got up and suggested that certain minimums of fines and community service hours from infractions that directly contributed to the litter problem be determined and posted throughout the park so visitors knew what they were in for if caught.
Yes. The meeting had negative aspects of county departments covering their asses in the face of the concerns and accusations made by the Surfrider Foundation South Texas Chapter and the Commissioners Court. Some alarming problems were made perfectly clear such as the discontinuity and inconsistency within the departments that overlook and manage Isla Blanca Park. However, on a very positive note, the issue was addressed, a dialouge was established and solutions such as easily accessible trash barrels, stricter enforcement and set fines were directed to be looked into and implemented by a now much more concerned Commissioners Court with Commissioner Pct.2 Commissioner Ernie Hernandez inviting the Surfrider Foundation to be an active participant in the next round of budgetary meetings regarding the beach parks. I guarantee we will find some money!
The one thing that stoked me out much more than anything else and lifetd my spirits the most was when I walked out of that Courtroom after an hour and a half discussion filled with highs and lows and saw the group of people that had shown up and almost to a person gotten up and spoken to the Commissioners, the Judge, the Constable and the other county officials and expressed their frustrations, concerns and ideas and seen the Commissioners Court ultimately respond is a positive way to them high-fiving each other, smiling and laughing! They saw that they could make the differences they wanted to see changed and were now empowered! they thanked me and the Surfrider Foundation South Texas Chapter but they were wrong. They should have been thanking each other! they are the ones that made the difference yesterday and deserve a thank you from everyone who loves our County Beaches!
There is truly an army of beach lovers that live and thrive on South Padre island and through out the Rio Grande Valley that love their beaches and are willing to do whatever it takes to get them to where they should be. Clean, healthy and safe!
The Cameron County Commissioners will revisit this in two weeks!