Monday, January 30, 2017

HCDE & The Open Meetings Act

Greg Abbott said...

"The Texas Open Meetings Act represents a commitment to the people of Texas that the public’s business will be conducted in the open. It is a legal guarantee of a transparent government..."

 “The provisions of [the Act] are mandatory and are to be liberally construed in favor of open government.”

What is the point of these promises if elected officials aren't really required to follow The Texas Open Meetings Act?

So today I mailed the following letter to the Harris County DA's Public Integrity Division requesting an investigation into possible violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act by HCDE's Board of Trustees on Jan. 26, 2017.

Page 1

Page 2

The facts:

1. The Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) legal services document reads as follows:
How does a school district hire a school attorney?
The board votes. The board, acting as a body corporate, selects and retains the district’s attorney. While the superintendent’s recommendation is valuable, the board is the “client” which ultimately makes this critical decision. 
Discuss in open session. Discussions and deliberations regarding the retention of an attorney, interviews with prospective counsel or discussions of their qualifications, and discussions or negotiations of the contract between the district and its attorney may not be conducted in closed meetings. All such discussions must be conducted in properly posted open meetings. An outside attorney or law firm is an independent contractor; therefore, the personnel exception in the Open Meetings Act does not apply. Of course, if the district is employing an attorney to serve as a member of its staff, then the attorney will be an employee of the district and his or her employment may be discussed in closed session pursuant to the personnel exception. 

2. HCDE currently contracts with the law firm of Rogers, Morris, & Grover, L.L.P. to serve as their board attorney. An attorney from the firm is present at every HCDE Board meeting to provide legal advice because HCDE does not employ a staff attorney.

3. HCDE held its regular monthly board meeting on Jan. 26, 2017. Agenda item 8W would have hired new general counsel for HCDE and changed Rogers, Morris, & Grover's role at HCDE. 
It read:
Consider hiring Chris Carmona as the HCDE’s board attorney and general counsel of HCDE. Rogers, Morris, & Grover, L.L.P. will be treated as “of counsel” and will be utilized at Chris Carmona’s discretion."       
4. HCDE Trustees held all of the discussions on this agenda item in closed session with the attorney from  Rogers, Morris, & Grover, L.L.P, even though the law firm is an independent contractor and a change in the firm’s contract was part of the agenda item.

While Rogers, Morris, & Grover, L.L.P. was behind closed doors with the Trustees, the other attorney being considered for general counsel remained in the public meeting room and was not invited into closed session.

You can view the Board's actions for yourself...

                                    View the video of the full meeting: here

5.  After the closed session, HCDE’s Trustees still held no public discussion of the agenda item. Instead, the agenda item was amended to issue a Request for Qualifications and Rogers, Morris, & Grover, L.L.P.’s  contract with HCDE remained unchanged with all discussions happening behind closed doors.

The Test

Those were the facts. Now for the test. 

Now is when the citizens of Harris County find out if the Texas Open Meetings Act really is "mandatory." 

If it really is a "legal guarantee of a transparent government..."

Or if it's all just more empty political promises. 

Colleen Vera

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

HCDE...New Year...Old Challenges

While so much of Harris County turned “blue” last November, the Harris County Department of Education (HCDE) – the only school board in Texas elected by political party – added two new Republicans. Republicans who ran on conservative platforms.

So, I attended their first “special” board meeting on 1/9/17 with hopes the taxpayers might begin to see some positive change.

For those who could not attend, I made a video of the meeting with my cell phone. You can view it  below. I apologize for the poor sound quality. It seems that HCDE, who markets itself as a leader in technology support, couldn’t get their own microphones to work, so they passed around portable mics – sometimes.

The highlights include some good news and some bad news.

I will start with the good.

#1 . In his first board meeting, George Moore, the Republican representing Precinct 2, proved to be a taxpayer advocate. He made use of his career experience in project management to question such things as HCDE’s 15-20% contingencies in their building costs and cast his votes to end all tax-funded lobbying.

#2. The Board approved two conservatives to the board of their Public Facilities Corporation – the “separate” corporation controlled by HCDE EMPLOYEES which HCDE uses to issue taxpayer backed bond debt WITHOUT ELECTIONS.

#3. The Board terminated ONE 
       tax-funded lobbyist contract - 
       Pat Strong.

#4. After much he-said-she-said bickering, the board approved requiring full plans, including BUDGETS, for both new schools BEFORE spending any more funds. That is a given in most places, but it is a HUGE step forward for HCDE. 

Maybe with enough pressure, HCDE will even let the taxpayers review the full plans and budgets online BEFORE the Board votes to spend the bond debt they got us into without an election…but that will have to be another story.

Now, for the not so good news.

#1 - In his FIRST EVER Board meeting, Eric Dick, the Republican representing Precinct 4, used the Joe Straus method to get himself elected Vice President. The two Democrats quickly motioned to nominate and second the unelected RINO* for President and the newbie Dick for VP. After a 2 ½ minute delay, the Board’s attorney ruled that no substitute motion could be made, and Dick proceeded to vote with Sheila Jackson Lee’s daughter to keep the conservatives from the top 2 Board positions.
*appointed by the previous board to fill Kay Smith’s position after she resigned to run for State Rep

#2 – Later, Dick voted with the Democrats again to keep in place their $10,000 per moth tax-funded lobbying contract with Hill Co.


Even though this first meeting was disappointing for conservatives, it still was the MOST PRODUCTIVE HCDE meeting EVER for the conservative cause!

#1 – We got rid of ONE totally wasteful lobbying contract saving taxpayers $82,000 per year. May not seem like much considering the $21+ million HCDE collects in property taxes per year, but it is a start.

#2 – For the first time EVER, two conservatives have a voice in PFC - the ”shell” corporation run by HCDE employees which HCDE uses to issue taxpayer backed bond debt WITHOUT ELECTIONS.

#3 – For the first time, taxpayers may have an opportunity to view FULL plans and budgets for HCDE’s building projects without having to file requests for public information. Maybe even online BEFORE a meeting so the public can comment BEFORE the board votes.

#4 – The taxpayers have a new fiscally responsible advocate on the board in Trustee Moore. One who can use his professional experience in project management to rein in  spending lacking adequate planning and detail.

#5 – In this first meeting, Trustee Dick did vote WITH the conservatives MORE times than he voted with the Democrats.

Action Plan

Normally I suggest you contact the two new Trustees with your own comments. 

However, two months after the election, HCDE's website is still showing the names and contact information for their old Trustees. 

 I guess they have been too busy working on their microphones.

Colleen Vera