Who are the O.W.L.S.? Some have joked that the acronym represents “Old White Ladies-Looking for Something.” However, the non-partisan group Objective Watchers of the Legal System is open to all races, young and old, men and women – anyone who wishes to hold their government officials accountable.
The first page of the O.W.L.S. guidebook states their main goal: “to have good government.”
For thirty-plus years, Rio Grande Valley residents have counted on the O.W.L.S. attending school board meetings, commissioners court meetings, child custody and divorce cases, and more. Their presence is a constant reminder to politicians that they are public servants.
The group began in the 1970s with Virginia Townsend and Nancy Shary as they started to focus their efforts on the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court. Virginia, referred to as the “mother owl,” recalls that when she first started attending commissioners court meetings, “they didn’t have any chairs, [as] they didn’t want the public there. So, we brought our own chairs.”
Virginia remembers saying, “Oh my goodness, there’s injustice everywhere, depending on who the judge is, and who the attorney is related to, and how much you pay them, and all that.”
She says her O.W.L.S. experience has been “unpleasant and it takes a lot of time, and a lot of threats. What some people don’t understand is that we gain nothing by it personally. We are not in it to do damage.” But she says it’s worthwhile because, “We are in it to bring fairness to the system.”
The current O.W.L.S. spokesperson, a fiery woman named Fern McClaugherty, says that “someone has to represent the people and the taxpayers. We have heard a million times, ‘if the public didn’t like it, they would’ve said something about it.’ But the public is too busy to get away because they are working.”
Joseph Palacios, Hidalgo County Commissioner Precinct 4, recently recalled his first experience with the group. “It was about 19 years ago. I was told to be careful with the O.W.L.S….I’m grateful for them as they have kept me honest and always mindful of the decisions I make every day.”
The group’s size has fluctuated over the years. At one point their roster included sixty-plus members who could be found wearing their bright red O.W.L.S.- logo shirts throughout the RGV – listening in, taking notes, asking questions, and requesting public records, basically being a nuisance to local politicians. Their aim was, and still is, to make sure that government is fair and accountable to everyone. Mostly, they represent the taxpayers’ concerns.
Nowadays, the O.W.L.S. has an active membership of 11. They have also created a separate political action committee, the Prosperity Hidalgo PAC, that calls for a reduction in taxes across Hidalgo County and holds meetings on Wednesdays.
The O.W.L.S. have been called to testify several times at the state capitol on voter fraud and voter ID laws. In 2011, they spoke before the Texas House Select Committee on Voter Identification & Voter Fraud of the 82nd Legislature in favor of Senate Bill 14. Sporting their bright red shirts, four members testified in support of photo identification requirements to vote.
McClaugherty testified, “We have a gentleman from Progresso, he has drawers of voter ID cards that he hands to people. One lady, an illegal, who was stopped from testifying two years ago…and well she voted as a man. Because it was a man’s name on the card.”
Elizabeth Barnes told the committee, “We live in the RGV where we have a big problem. One man came in with a Mexican driver’s license, another from California… We just don’t know what to do with it anymore.”
Virginia Townsend called out the partisan efforts in SB 14. “There’s other ways our election systems are broken. We need a lot of work…We are in the process of losing our confidence… It’s the most important thing in the world to us, to have the security of one person, one vote. And we do get a little bit panicky and paranoid… All I care is that we get our system back. One person, one vote.”
“When there’s unfairness and cheating, people call us,” McClaugherty told Texas Scorecard. “We go wherever we are needed. We get called to speak for others, we testify on their behalf, as their jobs are on the line.”
She recalls different experiences being an “owl:”
“Over the years, (we don’t know who), someone sends a letter, and it describes what’s going on in the county. It’s addressed to me – just my name ‘Fern McClaugherty’ – and it reaches my home, with the return address of ‘Hidalgo County Courthouse.’ We investigate the information, and then follow up with questions.”
Her fondest memories of being an owl, are when their presence has contributed to fairness delivered during child custody cases, and when “the taxpayers voted 111,822 against Prop 1.” Proposition 1 would’ve increased a property tax for the healthcare district to fund indigent medical care. The O.W.L.S. took the lead against the tax increase, and are determined to fight it again.
The O.W.L.S. reputation has even reached the U.S. Capitol: a member of Congress asked to have a shirt made for him. Somewhere in a congressional office is an O.W.L.S. shirt displayed, a friendly reminder that there’s always an “owl” watching.