El Paso

Attorney: Strong evidence El Paso mayor, reps violated Texas Open Meetings Act

Group's closed door meeting called 'alarming'

Attorney: Strong evidence El Paso...

EL PASO, Texas - An attorney who specializes in open government believes there is strong evidence that showed four El Paso city council members and the mayor knowingly evaded the Texas Open Meetings Act in December.

Houston attorney Joe Larsen described the group's actions as "alarming." Larsen is a member of The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. The group works to ensure the public's business is conducted in public and protect the liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Two ethics complaints, since rejected by city attorney Sylvia Borunda Firth, took aim at Mayor Oscar Leeser and Reps. Cortney Niland, Jim Tolbert, Peter Svarzbein and Lily Limon for their participation in a closed door meeting with some of those opposed to the original proposed Duranguito location of the Downtown arena.

The Texas Open Meetings Act states no more than four city reps can meet at a time.

In his ethics complaint, Jud Burgess stated, "I believe the mayor and four City Council members named in this complaint intentionally conspired to avoid quorum by gaming The Texas Open Meetings Act and participating in a rolling quorum, which allowed them to conduct closed-door meetings without public notice."

The complaint also stated, "City Council members and the Mayor cannot rotate members in the meeting over small periods of time to avoid meeting the number that constitutes a quorum for the purpose of avoiding giving public notice."

ABC 7 obtained text message sent between the mayor and two city representatives.

The day before the meeting Tolbert sent a text to Leeser that stated: "I've been involved in this thing longer than than most of the people you invited. Yet, I cannot be at your meeting because of a quorum. At least give me the courtesy of a call afterwards. I don't like being excluded when I'm a key player."

Leeser responded: "If you want to come be part of the meeting, I will step out. I just didn't want to have any questions regarding quorom."

"Here, you've got a text message that almost comes out and says, if I join the meeting, we will be a quorum, and that is illegal, and the other party of the text says, yeah, I realize that, so I will step outside the meeting, so we can still meet," Larsen said.

Limon appeared on Sunday Xtra and was asked about the meeting.

"At no time ever were there five of us involved in any kind of a meeting. Never were," Limon said.

She was asked if she made sure of that.

"I sure did, yeah. Yes, there were never five of us at any time in any meeting."

When asked how she made sure, Limon answered, "Because I can count."

"If they are counting and making sure the meeting numbers are less than a quorum, the whole point is they are doing it to circumvent the Open Meetings Act by meeting in numbers less than a quorum.  So, they can have their secret deliberations," Larsen said.

The District Attorney's Office has submitted a formal request to the Texas Rangers for an investigation of the alleged conduct violating the Texas Open Meetings Act. 

The violation is considered a misdemeanor. If found guilty, a person could face up to a $500 fine and/or six months in jail.

"How much worse does it get? When you start inviting people in to deliberate on public policy in a non-posted meeting, and you select the people who come in and exclude others while you are deliberating public business? So this is really a mess," Larsen said.

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