Unannounced party before scheduled board meeting does not meet incidental exception, expert attorney says.
By Kyle R. Cotton
A quorum of the Alamo Colleges board of trustees attended a buffet dinner before the 5:45 p.m. public meeting Tuesday that may have violated the Texas Open Meetings Act.
The dinner in the Killen Center lobby celebrated, “Affirming the Momentum for Student Success” and the re-election of four incumbents May 7, according to a printed agenda placed at each seat and Chancellor Bruce Leslie’s opening remarks. A cake was decorated with the Alamo Colleges logo.
Five trustees made presentations on successful district initiatives to the 25 family members, friends and members of Alamo Colleges leadership, which included members of Student District Council, Super Senate, Unified Staff Council and some vice chancellors and college presidents.
The five trustees who spoke at the event were District 1 trustee Joe Alderete, District 2 trustee Denver McClendon, District 3 trustee Anna Bustamante, District 5 trustee Roberto Zárate and District 7 trustee Yvonne Katz.
McClendon spoke in District 6 trustee Gene Sprague’s place.
District 4 trustee Marcelo Casillas and student trustee Emmanuel Nyong were also attendance.
A quorum became present at 5:10 p.m. when the fifth trustee, Casillas, arrived. Five trustees constitute a quorum for the Alamo Colleges board.
Alderete said Leslie sent out the invitations via email and that a similar event happened when he was first elected in 2010.
The Texas Open Meetings Act specifies that if a quorum of members of a governing board of a public institution discusses public business in more than an “incidental” way, they must do so in a public meeting.
District General Counsel Ross Laughead said in an interview Tuesday evening he believed the dinner to be an exception to the law under Section 551.001(4)(B)(iv).
The section reads, “The term meeting does not include the gathering of a quorum of a governmental body at a social function unrelated to the public business that is conducted by the body, or the attendance by a quorum of a governmental body at a regional, state or national convention or workshop, ceremonial event, or press conference, if formal action is not taken and any discussion of public business is incidental to the social function, convention, workshop, ceremonial event or press conference,”
Bill Aleshire, a pro bono attorney for the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said the section does not apply to this event.
“It sounds like they were deliberating business in a closed meeting,” Aleshire said. “They must have posted an agenda 72 hours in advance of the event.”
Board liaison Sandra Mora confirmed that nothing had been posted regarding the dinner.
“It wasn’t a regular meeting,” Mora said.
Aleshire explained that as long as somebody is presenting information regarding business of the governmental entity with a quorum present, it is considered deliberation and it doesn’t matter if the item in question has already been put in place by the board.
District 2 trustees Denver McClendon talked about his experience as a college student as part of his presentation on academic success and brought up AlamoAdvise as a way to illustrate students won’t be able to skate by sitting in the back of the class as he did and not interact with anyone.
District 5 trustee Roberto Zárate announced to guests the Alamo Colleges now has AAA bond rating and discussed Diane Snyder, vice chancellor of finance and administration, and Leslie’s five-year plan regarding the budget and credited them for giving the board flexibility to implement AlamoAdvise and the AlamoInstitutes.
Laughead believes the dinner would be considered a ceremonial event since they were scheduled to swear in the re-elected trustees 15 minutes after the chancellor and trustees began speaking and the event was in the lobby next to the meeting room.
“If it were a violation — I’m not saying it was though — I would say it was an honest accident. It wasn’t like we were trying to hide since it was taking place right outside of where the schedule meeting was going to take place,” Laughead said. “ I would categorize it as just a pep talk.”
Laughead conceded the dinner met the definition of deliberation, which the law says “means a verbal exchange during a meeting between a quorum of a governmental body, or between a quorum of a governmental body and another person, concerning an issue within the jurisdiction of the governmental body or any public business.”
He said that because of attorney-client privilege he could not divulge whether district officials or trustees consulted him on whether the dinner should be structured as an open meeting with public notification in advance.
The board also frequently gathers before scheduled public meetings in a conference room next to the room where meetings usually take place.
Aleshire said as long as trustees are hanging out and not deliberating business they are not violating the law; however, the room is concerning to him since the public can’t see what goes on in the conference room.
The punishment for violating the act ranges from a fine of $100-500 and/or imprisonment of one to six months should anyone be prosecuted and convicted.
Kelley Shannon, director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said the Texas Open Meetings Act is important for the public to see how government operates.
“When members of a governmental body meet without notifying the people they represent, (the people) are left out of the decision-making process,” Shannon said.