MAGNOLIA — Midway through his weekly supervisors meeting, Montgomery County Commissioner Charlie Riley perks up at the mention of an unruly resident’s repeated calls.
Riley’s operations manager, Don Dean, is recounting his efforts to reason with a woman concerned about flooding in her neighborhood. She wants Riley’s office to reroute Lake Creek through the San Jacinto River — an impossible task, Dean laments.
Part of Riley’s weekly routine includes listening to his staff relay the latest departmental news — from determining which sewage pipes were replaced to how many potholes were repaired.
But on this morning in mid-May, amid the boxes of doughnuts and kolaches, bottles of Dr. Pepper and a coffee thermos etched with the hallmark Texas “Come And Take It” flag, Riley’s operations manager has the room doubled over with laughter at the incredulity of this resident’s next request.
“She wants everyone to build a dam, too,” Dean grumbles. “We have no jurisdiction over that!”
As the commissioner of Montgomery County Precinct 2, this is not the first, nor will it be the last, irrational request to come from a county resident. After everyone quiets down, Riley tips his proverbial — and literal — cowboy hat to the dozen or so men and women assembled around the conference table, commending his Texas county government’s version of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table.
“I tell y’all, all the time, (other precincts) wanna be us,” the commissioner says. “No one in this county runs like we run, and there’s a reason our (precinct) logo is in gold. Thank y’all for all you do.”
The Houston Landing spent several hours with Riley and his staff on May 18, capturing a typical day in the precinct to show residents how local government operates and explore issues that matter most.
We toured many of the idiosyncrasies and responsibilities of local government: holding supervisors meetings, operating toll roads, consulting with architects, lunching at a Tex-Mex restaurant, repairing a flood-prone ditch.
Riley, a third-term commissioner, has been living in the county for over 50 years. His family moved to Magnolia in 1971. His father, Buddy Riley, served the county as a maintenance operator and road foreman.
His father’s commitment to community engagement inspired Riley, who served as the precinct’s operations manager for 13 years before his run for political office. After campaigning as a fiscally conservative and service-driven candidate — armed with a traditional Western-style vest, blue jeans and a brass buckle befitting of a Magnolia Cowboy Church parishioner —Riley won his seat in November 2014.
In his position, Riley serves on the Commissioners Court, which adopts the county’s budget, tax rate and governmental policy. His office is also responsible for maintaining Precinct 2’s county roads and bridges, plus their allocation of the county budget.
Riley’s swath of the county extends far beyond the city of Magnolia to the western edge of Conroe and north to the city of Montgomery. Like much of Montgomery County, Precinct 2 has seen exponential growth over the past several decades, Riley said.
That growth, paired with a lack of civic literacy — about who makes decisions in county government, and how and why they’re made — leads to a lot of confusion about what, exactly, a county commissioner and their staff does.
8:21 a.m., Montgomery County Precinct 2 offices
Sgt. Duane Burrell and Lt. Michael Silvio, officers with the Montgomery County constable’s office that has jurisdiction over Precinct 2, quickly deliver their weekly status reports to Riley and file out of the conference room. The duo regularly attends Riley’s supervisors meeting in Magnolia because they oversee law enforcement in the 2nd precinct.
Suddenly, a call comes in informing the officers that a cement truck’s tire blew off its axle, flew over the median and landed among the trees adjacent to the feeder road off State Highway 249, a main artery through the area.
The incident requires the county to shut down that stretch of road to repair a divot the truck made. Given that one of the office’s main responsibilities is to maintain county roads, Riley doesn’t bat an eye as Burrell and Silvio take off.
“Go on, gentlemen,” he says with a wave.
9:15 a.m., Decker Prairie Tolling Zone
After the supervisors meeting ends, Riley and other staffers hang back at the office to prepare for an upcoming meeting.
Meanwhile, the Montgomery County Toll Road Authority’s operations manager, Robert Castañeda, drives past Burrell and Silvio, who are on the scene of the cement truck accident on the northbound side of State Highway 249.
Castañeda is in charge of ensuring the toll roads built on county highways are operating at full capacity, and he wants to ensure traffic from the accident has not affected the Decker Prairie Tolling Zone.
The county recently completed an expansion of the toll road in 2020 — a partnership between Harris County Toll Road Authority and the Texas Department of Transportation, Castañeda explains.
“I’ve been in tolling since 1987,” Castañeda says. “I was retired a few years back and I told myself, ‘I’m never gonna work for another elected official!’”
“But then Charlie (Riley) called,” he says, laughing. “People think Charlie’s king … They think he’s a sovereign, but that’s not the case. We have rules and regulations we have to follow, and as someone raised here, Charlie’s got the right mentality.”
10:20 a.m., Montgomery County Precinct 2 offices
Back in the commissioner’s conference room, Riley meets with Shane Howard, the senior vice president of strategy and development at the architecture firm Burditt.
A few months ago, the Johnson Development Corporation, a Houston-area real estate company, donated 391 acres of land to the precinct to create the Fish Creek Regional Park, which will break ground in the Woodforest community sometime in the next year.
The precinct hired Howard’s firm to design the plans and estimate how much the park will cost, which Howard anticipates they will solidify by the end of the summer.
Need help in Precinct 2?
For additional information about service requests that fall under the precinct’s jurisdiction, you can visit the commissioner’s “How Can We Help You?” page.
From there, it will take the better part of the next year to map out a design, then another 1 1/2 to three years to complete construction.
“But we really should address how we want to deal with car congestion,” Howard says.
Sitting underneath a framed picture of Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln, the precinct’s operation manager, Don Dean, lobs a suggestion.
“Can we do a roundabout?”
“Now listen, I’m for it,” Riley says. “I want this to be the best park we have in Montgomery County.”
Bobby Powell, Montgomery County’s information technology director, stresses that it’s vital to offer public, open WiFi access at the park.
“About 40 percent of the county is without internet,” Powell says. “We get complaints from law enforcement all the time — it’s an EMS hazard, especially when the cell service is so bad.”
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12:34 p.m., Rancho Grande Bar & Grill
The commissioner’s chief of staff, Bruce Berger, motions to the hostess, pleading for a table in the back. He knows that if Riley sits in the main dining room of the brightly lit, busy restaurant during lunch, too many residents would come up to say hello and talk county business.
A few minutes later, at a table off in a corner of the restaurant, Berger, Riley, Powell and the precinct’s special projects coordinator, Lorinda Boyd, sit down to eat.
Riley says one of his biggest concerns is residents’ inaccurate assumptions about how much money his precinct gets from taxes — not to mention how his office can actually spend that money. It’s a frustration Riley attributes to a lack of information being shared across the community.
Local property taxes in Montgomery County fund the sheriff’s department, the county’s five justices of the peace, the five constable departments and eight courts, as well as schools and hospitals, Riley explains. From mowing to curb repairs, Riley cannot afford to subcontract work.
“By law, I have to send out tax statements to every resident in our precinct, and the average resident pays about $700 in (county) property taxes,” he says. “I get 2 percent of that $700. That’s $14 to me, which is why we do most everything in-house.”
As the group stands up to head back to the office, an older man approaches Riley and clasps his hands around the commissioner’s.
“Good to see you, Charlie,” he says. Berger turns around and smiles, holding up his hands as if to say, “See, I told ya so!”
1:12 p.m., Montgomery County Precinct 2 sign shop
Danny Amendt is fresh out of signs for Tobacco Road.
The street signs that adorn the winding suburban stretch in the city of Montgomery — located within Precinct 2 — are constantly being stolen.
The commissioner, Berger and Boyd run into Amendt, the road signage supervisor, while stopping by the precinct’s sign shop, where custom road signs are printed for the entire county using a 3-D printer.
Inside the shop, Riley laughs at the mention of the Tobacco Road signs missing in action.
“It don’t matter what we do,” he says. “We’ve welded them, extended them up 25 feet in the air — they never manage to stay.”
Amendt assumes the Tobacco Road thieves are bored teenagers or tobacco enthusiasts in need of new living room decor. Whatever the reason, it’s another annoying quirk of local government he has to deal with.
All said, it’s a minor inconvenience in Amendt’s much larger job: maintaining road and traffic signs across the precinct. That responsibility only increases after major floods, when traffic signs are swept up by a storm and familiar roads become unrecognizable.
1:51 p.m., Shady Lane in Magnolia
On a residential side street covered by trees dangling with Spanish moss — aptly named Shady Lane — a Precinct 2 ditch digger smooths out the contours of a grassy drain caked in muddy tire tracks.
Berger received a call that a work crew was nearby and suggested to Boyd they check in, to give the Landing a better sense of how the road repair and street crew operates.
On Shady Lane, a member of the crew, Les Robinson, explains how a truck went off-roading and tore up the ditch enough to block runoff water from properly flowing. If left unaddressed, that ditch could flood residential lawns up and down the block, he adds.
Robinson is the newest member of the crew that manages road repairs across the precinct. Three weeks into the job, he admits there’s still a lot to learn.
“Still got the shine on me,” Robinson says with a chuckle, gesturing to his fluorescent construction vest.
2:15 p.m., Montgomery County Precinct 2 offices
There’s a visitor back in Riley’s office.
Lorinda Boyd, the precinct’s special project’s coordinator, has arranged for Jennifer Myers to present the commissioner with an honor from Mosaics of Mercy, a nonprofit that provides mental health and addiction recovery services throughout the county.
Myers, the organization’s community outreach coordinator, is eager to thank Riley for the county’s three-year contribution to the nonprofit totaling nearly $700,000.
“We are a bridge to resources,” Myers says. “And we are so grateful for your allocation of funds to help us keep doing this important work.”
Riley’s wife, Deanne, beams with pride across the room. She came in to surprise her husband. The couple has been together since they were 14 years old — shortly after the Riley family moved to Magnolia.
“We’re fixin’ to have our 47th anniversary,” she says.
Riley has been at the office since before 7 a.m. and will be headed out with Deanne shortly, but the work of a county commissioner never fits neatly within the confines of a 9-to-5 schedule. Later in the evening, he’ll answer more emails from Berger about securing funding for the Fish Creek Regional Park project and set aside time to prepare for the Commissioners Court meeting the following week.
But for now, he’ll pose for a photo with Myers. Quick to redirect Mosaics of Mercy’s gratitude, Riley thanks her and compliments his staff for making the precinct’s financial contribution to the organization a reality.
“We take care of our own,” he says.