Mark Mooney, PE, the long-time Montgomery County Engineer whose office approved LJA plans for Woodridge Village and Artavia, and whose office oversaw LJA’s investigation of itself, has joined LJA Engineering as a “business development representative.” (Usually that means “sales.”)
A February 17, 2020, press release about Mr. Mooney’s appointment appears on LJA’s Facebook page. According to insiders, Mr. Mooney actually started working part time with LJA shortly after his retirement from MoCo. That happened after the May floods in 2019. However, the release now implies the relationship is full time. It appeared just days before LJA was named as an additional defendant in the Elm Grove flooding case. Below is the entire release verbatim:
MARK MOONEY, PE JOINS LJA AS BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT REPRESENTATIVE
After 34 years with Montgomery County, during which most of the time he served as the County Engineer, Mark Mooney, PE has joined LJA Engineering.
During his tenure, he had oversight of all major road initiatives through numerous bond elections; provided advice, direction, and consultation to 5 different County Judges and 17 different County Commissioners; oversaw the review and approval of over 3500 residential and commercial subdivision plats; oversaw the review, approval and inspection of over 1300 miles of road construction; and, provided daily services to a population that grew from 160,000 residents to over 600,000 residents in the 34-year span.
“I have known and respected Mark for many, many years. When the opportunity presented itself, I knew he was a perfect fit for LJA. We have four offices within Montgomery County and are personally and professionally vested in the growth and success of our employee-owners and clients there. Mark has dedicated his career to this community, and we want him to keep doing what he does best, serving Montgomery County,” said Jeff Cannon, Senior Vice President.
Mark was a Member of the City of Houston planning commission from February 1998 to May 2019. He is a Member of the Texas Association of County Engineers and Road Administrators (TACERA) since 1998; having served as President from 2005-2006, and he has been a Member of the National Association of County Engineers (NACE) since 1998.
Joining LJA, Mark explained, “It was the confidence that I felt between myself and Calvin Ladner (LJA President), that began when we were both a lot younger back in the mid-eighties, that sealed the deal. My responsibilities as the Montgomery County Engineer were made much easier by the honesty I had with Calvin initially and then with so many of the staff at LJA throughout the years. In my 34 years in this business, it always came down to trust as being the most important aspect as a public official. At LJA, I am ready to further develop my industry relationships utilizing the same playbook that worked for me for so many years as Montgomery County’s engineer.”
End of Release
Revolving Door Between Government and Business
[Rehak here again.] Before retirement, I frequently saw how the revolving door worked between government and business. I knew a man who went to Washington and worked for the EPA in a high level position “to get his ticket stamped.” Those were his words, not mine. After working in D.C. for several years, he returned to private industry where he made considerably more money, thanks to the insights he gave clients about how the EPA worked.
Personal connections provide knowledge of agency priorities; understanding of personal hot buttons; insights into procedures; and relationships with decision makers. They all prove valuable to companies whose sales depend on public-sector approval.
Fine Line Between Harmless and Harmful
There’s nothing illegal or immoral about this per se. On the innocent side, sometimes, if projects get bogged down, a call to an old friend can:
- Move plans from the bottom of a pile to the top in an emergency.
- Determine what the agency’s concerns about a set of plans might be so the concerns can be addressed quickly.
- Speed up slow approval processes that run up costs.
Cases like these harm no one. They represent a form of social engineering or influence peddling that has been around as long as governments. However, what is normal and accepted in principle can sometimes turn sour in practice.
For instance, private-sector engineers/consultants might urge decision makers who are old friends on the government side to:
- Rubber stamp questionable plans without looking too closely at them. (“Trust me.”)
- Look only at the conclusion of a report without scrutinizing the assumptions, methodologies, underlying calculations and support.
- Trust that they are monitoring construction when they aren’t.
- Promise “no adverse impact” to homes downstream when there is adverse impact.
Between these two extremes, between legal and illegal, infinite shades of gray exist.
Public’s Presumption of Oversight
Cases like those in the latter category can mislead the public and have devastating consequences. The public presumes the government is overseeing development (or at least the permitting of plans). In fact, government may not be. Those plans and stamps and dazzling arrays of figures may create the appearance of professional oversight when none exists.
Families may invest their life savings in homes based on the presumption of government oversight. Officials are supposed to ensure that there is no adverse downstream impact from a new development. But as we’ve seen in Elm Grove and elsewhere, that’s often not the case.
Bad Optics for Ethics
Exerting influence can sometimes cross moral, ethical and legal lines. I’m not saying it happened with Mr. Mooney. I have no evidence to even lead me to suspect such a thing. By all accounts, Mr. Mooney is honest and reputable.
Apparent Conflict of Interest In Elm Grove Investigation
However, it was on Mr. Mooney’s watch as County Engineer that the TCEQ referred a complaint about Woodridge Village involving LJA to Montgomery County for investigation.
Mooney’s department had LJA on retainer to investigate such complaints. So LJA wound up investigating itself.
To inspire public confidence in the outcome of the investigation, you would think that LJA would have recused itself or the county engineer would have hired another company for this particular investigation. Neither thing happened.
Certifying No Need for Detention Ponds in 2,200-Acre Development
Mooney’s department also vetted the LJA Drainage Impact Analysis for Artavia. It certified no detention ponds were necessary for the 2,200 acre development because it would have no impact on the West Fork San Jacinto. However, the report did not examine the impact on:
- Surrounding homes whose drainage has been blocked
- The impact on downstream flooding, i.e., loading Lake Houston before floodwaters arrive.
Approving Dead-End Drainage
Mr. Mooney’s department also took LJA’s word for the fact they would find a way to get Artavia runoff to the West Fork, despite the fact that illustrations in the approved Drainage Impact Analysis showed the main drainage ditch stopping short of the river.
A year after LJA received approval of their plans, the LMI sand mine at the base of the ditch flooded. LMI blamed Artavia’s ditch overflow for causing a massive breach in LMI’s dikes that allowed 56 million gallons of white gunk to escape into the West Fork.
LMI also blames Artavia’s alleged overflow for flooding a deep pit where they are doing dry mining. A large part of the pit remains flooded; disrupting LMI’s normal operations, according to a company spokesperson. (More on this in a future post.)
Meanwhile, Artavia is building homes and the developments drainage ditch still does not reach the river.
Certifying “No Adverse Impact” for Woodridge Village Right Before 400 Homes Flood
Under Mooney’s watch, county engineers certified that LJA plans would have no adverse impact on Elm Grove…right before 400 homes in Elm Grove flooded.
Accepting Job With LJA Right Before LJA Sued by Flooded Elm Grove Residents
Now, LJA finds itself at the heart of lawsuits by hundreds of flooded homeowners in Kingwood. And the former county engineer who could have provided insight into the county’s position has taken a job with the engineering company at the heart of the lawsuits. Think that might slant his testimony? Who wants to testify against his employer?
The optics of these incidents sure don’t inspire trust and confidence in LJA, Mr. Mooney, or Montgomery County developers. In future posts I will dig into more of the details behind these incidents.
Calls to LJA’s project manager for Artavia went unanswered for days before this post. If LJA wishes to submit a response to this post, I will publish it verbatim.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/19/2020
934 Days after Hurricane Harvey
The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.