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School safety, building lawsuit among top 2018 stories

December 19, 2018

Significant events of 2018 in Pasadena included a lawsuit by the city seeking demolition of a historic building it deems unsafe, the resignation of the city’s first Hispanic police chief and actions at area schools to ensure student safety in the wake of a mass campus shooting in nearby Santa Fe.

The shadow of Santa Fe

While Pasadena ISD and La Porte ISD were still recovering from Hurricane Harvey’s toll on campuses and students’ families, the district moved to address security concerns and anxiety among students and parents in the wake of the May shooting at Santa Fe High School just weeks before the last day of the school year.

On social media, parents asked for more security on campuses, with some calling for metal detectors to monitor entrances.

In the initial, precautionary response to the Santa Fe shooting, both the Pasadena and La Porte school districts increased campus security measures through partnerships with city police departments to provide additional officers at strategic locations at campuses and surrounding areas.

In the week after the shooting, cases of “terroristic threats” on campuses resulted in students being taken into custody.

Pasadena ISD confirmed that a student was arrested on May 23 for bringing a handgun to school at Beverly Hills Intermediate School, but officials said there was no indication of any intent to use the weapon. At La Porte ISD, officials verified that two students were taken into custody for making threats.

Police chief resigns

Pasadena City Council accepted on Nov. 6 , in a 7-2 vote, to accept Police Chief Al Espinoza’s resignation after almost three years in the role effective Nov. 30 amid questions about the circumstances of his departure. Espinoza had been appointment by Mayor Jeff Wager in spring 2017 to replace retiring chief Michael Thaler.

Two of the council’s three Latino members, Sammy Casados and Cody Ray Wheeler, voted against accepting Espinoza’s letter of resignation, with Casados claiming that Espinoza, who has been with the police department for 39 years, was being forced out.

Espinoza did not respond to any comments about his retirement at the meeting, but later said in a written statement to the Pasadena Citizen on Nov. 9, “Every Police Chief serves at the pleasure of the Mayor.”

Mayor Jeff Wagner’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Espinoza’s retirement or who would lead the police department going forward.

However, Casados said in an interview that he received an email from the city’s human resources director, Daniel Pennington announcing that Assistant Police Chief Josh Bruegger was taking over as acting chief effective Nov. 7.

EDC indictments

In February, six current and former members of Pasadena’s economic development board were indicted on misdemeanor charges of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act by a grand jury for holding two private meetings in November 2016 with a contractor.

President Roy Mease, vice president Ernesto Paredes, treasurer Brad Hance, secretary Jackie Welch and board members Jim Harris and Emilio Carmona were all accused of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act, according to a news release issued by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

Mease serves as the Port of Houston Authority Commissioner, a position he was appointed to by the city in 2013. Mease, an attorney, also has had a contract with the city of Pasadena to collect delinquent taxes and ticket fines on behalf of the city since the 1990s.

Some on City Council have urged that the contract be terminated or that another firm be hired when Mease’s contract is up. But in response to calls for Mease’s resignation at one meeting where payments to Mease were approved for the tax collection services, Wagner commented that “an indictment is not a conviction.”

Bank building lawsuit

The city of Pasadena is filed suit against the owners of the former First Pasadena State Bank building, a 12-story landmark at Southmore Avenue and Pasadena Boulevard, on June 29, in Harris County District Court, claiming that code violations spanning more than a decade have left the structure unsafe.

The city seeks $65,000 in back code violation fees the city claims that building owner Pasadena Southmore LP and property lien holder Green Bank NA have failed to comply with building standards for the property at 1001 East Southmore Ave. The city is demanding that the owner either tear down the building built in 1962 or reimburse the city for demolition costs.

Historian David Pomeroy said in a previous Chronicle interview that construction of the building helped establish the area near the new City Hall as a commercial area.

When finished, the building, still the only skyscraper in Pasadena, was an anomaly in the community. It’s design was meant to reflect a growing city.

“It was seen as progressive and modern, all those things you wanted in a city at that time,” said David Bush, executive director of Preservation Houston, a nonprofit which promotes restoration efforts.

Other events

The Pasadena Strawberry Festival, an annual community favorite which began in 1974, saw smaller crowds and overall participation down, compared to past years.

“We didn’t do as well as expected, but we did OK,” said Bert Muston, the festival’s executive director.

Muston estimates that the festival, held May 18-20, drew in 25,000 people — a decent number, she said, but significantly down from 55,000 to 60,000 in previous years.

“It’s a big difference, and we also noticed that we were down in cook-off spots and mud volleyball spots, and cookers told us they were down in sponsors,” she said.

The festival raises funds for student scholarships and community projects. Lingering effects of Hurricane Harvey and a May 19 explosion at the Kuraray America Inc. plant in Pasadena may have hurt attendance.

Scholarships given in 2018 from the festival totaled $40,000; donations to nonprofit groups that work the festival totaled $32,000.

During the year, Pasadena ISD recognized the achievements of two principals, Joe Saavedra at Pasadena High School and Andrea Gilger at McMasters Elementary School, for strides their campuses made in student performance. Since 2019, Saavedra has seen the graduate rate increase from 67 percent to nearly 90 percent. Gilger was singled out for successfully obtaining a grant that brought a new playground to the school and surrounding neighborhood. She also initiated projects that engaged parent and community participation and saw recorded progress in student performance, with the school receiving a “met standard” for the 2016-2017 school year.

jjones@chron.com

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