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20110307-OWLS-002EDINBURG — They’re the group elected officials love to hate. Unavoidable in bold red shirts, the Objective Watchers of the Legal System, or OWLS, have their eyes and ears on nearly everything government-related in Hidalgo County.

No matter the sentiment, the OWLS, for over 30 years, have been to be the non-partisan political watchers of the county. Representing those who don’t have a voice or suffering injustices in courtrooms, the organization also keeps an eye on how taxpayer money is being spent. Their continued presence reminds officials of their accountability to citizens.

Virginia Townsend, the mother owl as other members refer to her, has been involved with the organization since its founding. The Mission resident said she’s passionate about their work.

“When we go to court, to specifically watch a case, it’s because we have been called and told there is some type of injustice going on,” she said. “We’re hoping by our presence, because all we do is sit-in and take notes, the people of the court realize someone out there cares. We are going to ask questions if you don’t.”

The OWLS inconspicuously began in the 1970s when friends Nancy Shary and Townsend began attending county meetings. Townsend felt elected officials didn’t pay attention to any public concerns. She witnessed this in 1978 when a Hidalgo County health director was accused of bad practices and officials fired two nurses who had filed the complaints. Townsend, the nurses and other volunteers picketed the courthouse and began attending the commissioners’ court meetings of the case. The charges were later proven to be false.

From that moment, the concerned women started attending court on a weekly basis, taking notes, asking questions, and requesting public documents. All methods they still use today.

“The funny thing was if officials saw us in the courtroom, because we went many years to the courts without shirts or anything, they thought we were just normal citizens,” said Townsend. “My husband would say that’s wrong. If you’re going to be the OWLS you need to represent yourselves.”

Nancy Shary, who re-located to San Antonio, named the watchdog organization. She also created their red shirts, with a logo of an owl imprinted on the left side of the shirt and their first and last name on the opposite side. The intense glare of an owl is also stitched on their backs, almost indicating the members have eyes behind their heads. Shirts made all the difference, soon judges began to ask the ladies back to chambers to question their agenda, and the public began to acknowledge them as public allies against injustices.

When the organization began, OWL members blanketed county courtrooms with 63 members. Their attendance in courtrooms allowed the group to learn, through trial and error, about the legal system. With research, note taking and questioning officials they became knowledgeable and a threat.

Today, the group has approximately 11 active members. Their backgrounds vary; some were university professors, stay-at-home parents or business owners. Now retired, members say they have time to devote to their cause.

Townsend said everyone is eager to learn and wants to help make a difference for the public that can’t or isn’t aware of wrong doings in the county legal system.

“Our objectives are to get involved as poll watchers, attend city and school board meetings and the courts,” said Townsend. “We’re individuals and we don’t always agree, but we all want things to get better. There are no ranks, no dues, no official meetings, just citizens that are concerned.”

Representing Taxpayer Interests

In the past, the organization kept tabs on school board meetings and child abuse cases. Today, they focus more on Hidalgo County Commissioners’ Court’s spending of taxpayer’s monies.

Fern McClaugherty of Edinburg is concerned about how her money is spent for 10 years. She joined the organization after she read an article in The Monitor stating, “If you don’t like higher taxes you better attend commissioners’ court.” In doing so, she ran into Townsend and Shary and was motivated to join the watchers.

“Someone has to represent the people and the taxpayers. We have heard a million times if the public didn’t like it, they would of said something about it,” said McClaugherty. “But, the public is too busy to get away because they are working.”

Townsend said what drives them to keep a watchful eye on county spending is their tax bill every year. As a former board member of the Sharyland Independent School District, Townsend knows about how spending can rile a community.

“It affects our pocket. The county and city don’t make money. They don’t have a product to sell. They always go back to the taxpayer that has to work,” she said. “The county keeps foolishly spending money and eventually it’s going to run out if they are not careful.”

The OWLS said county officials are asking for another courthouse to be built at a projected cost of about $100 million. The group calls it as unnecessary spending and are currently trying to find an alternate way of renovating the current courthouse instead of building a completely new one.

Townsend and McClaugherty have a motto when it comes to proper spending of taxpayer money: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

Jim and Beth Barnes of Mission have been OWLS for about a year and attend school board meetings and city council meetings in Mission; the couple also attends Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority meetings.

Beth said Mission school board and city council meetings have generally been running smoothly recently. Their concern this year is the budget cuts schools are facing from the state.

“Once in a while there are problems, but we listen and if there is a problem we’ll speak up against it,” she said. “At these meetings, our presence tells officials, ‘We are watching you,’ and keeps them walking on the straight and narrow.”

In the last election, Jim was a poll watcher and came across improper voting practices. In the most unorthodox election practice, Jim was told it was okay to accept a Tamaulipas, Mexico driver license as a form of identification to vote.

“When the judge said let it go, you let it go. Another elections worker told me I could accept a social security card as form of ID to vote,” he said flustered. “Social security is not good in Texas to vote period. It has to be a valid picture ID or driver license with your information.”

Recently, the OWLS testified at a hearing held by the Texas Legislature regarding Texas Voter ID Bill, SB 14. If the bill passes, voters will be required to have a proper picture ID for voting. Members hope the law will put an end to voter fraud.

Courtroom Advocates

The OWLS also spend the majority of their time and passion in the county courts dealing with child custody battles.

They committed five years to a custody battle involving a young mother and her child. The mother was fighting to keep custody of her baby from the child’s father who wanted full custody. The father had strong influences in the county, money and power. The father managed to get the rights to take his child on Christmas day and open the courts the same day to file the paperwork. Eventually the OWLS discovered the judge knew the ex-husband’s father.

“I wrote the judicial conduct commission and said it’s a conflict of interest and they brought in another judge,” said Townsend. “It took 10 of us to sit in every time and we learned how to do it. You don’t have to say there is no justice in Hidalgo County. We just have to do something about it.”

The mother won custody of her child and sends thank you cards regularly to the OWLS in gratitude.

“When justice is there and it’s fair we like to see that,” said McClaugherty. “It’s fulfilling to make differences like that. It makes what we do worth it.”

The organization also gets approached by people curious about who they are or needing advice on their legal matters.

One citizen approached them as he was fighting to have partial custody of his child and felt he was losing the battle.

“He said God had sent us and needed our help. He was desperate and had tears in his eyes because when you come to Hidalgo County, the courts have such a bad reputation,” said McClaugherty. “He didn’t have a very good lawyer, and we helped him find a better one. In the end it all worked out for him.”

OWLs often experience the opposite of being needed. They intimidate officials and often hear comments like ”I hope you’re not coming to my court room today,” or “I wonder who they are going after today.”

Townsend doesn’t care whether they rub officials the wrong way because they are serving a positive purpose.

“I don’t want to sound sanctimonious, but I believe God is on our side and we’re doing his work,” she said. “We don’t have anything to gain, but just help others.”

McClaugherty said even her grandchildren know that the long hours she spends away from home are to help protect the public’s best interests.

“When I put on my OWL shirt, they know where I’m headed, and they will say, ‘Are you going to save my money today grandma,’ she said. “I say, ‘Yes honey we are going to try.’”

Love or hated the OWLs don’t give a hoot. They want to remain vigilant for Hidalgo County residents and keep city and county officials on the right track.

“If ever there was a time to get involved with the people you have elected it is now,” said Townsend. “It would be great if our only accomplishment was to get the public aware and involved.”

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