Municipal civil complaint filed against Taylor Councilwoman Christine Lopez
By Tom Mowdy
Taylor, TX. August 22, 2016 - A civil complaint claiming a violation of the Taylor City Charter was filed against Christine Lopez on August 19, 2016, in Taylor Municipal Court. The complaint could require the Taylor District 1 Councilwoman to vacate the seat she won in the May 2016, election.
The complaint alleges that, under the provisions of the Taylor City Charter, Ms. Lopez must vacate the seat because she has a conflict of interest by owning Black Stallion Lawn Care Service. The Taylor City Council is considering Black Stallion for a lawn service contract. The conflict seemed to be absolutely confirmed when Ms. Lopez recused herself during a recent City Council meeting where the lawn service contract was considered.
Christine Lopez, Taylor District 1 City Councilmember
The complaint cites the Taylor City Charter provisions that require specific qualifications for a Councilmember. The qualifications are established by Section 4.2, Qualifications, of Article 4 – Elective Officers, and states:
“Councilmembers shall not have a conflict of interest with the City as determined under the laws of the State of Texas. Any Councilmember who shall cease to possess any of the qualifications herein required shall immediately forfeit and vacate such office.”
The issue is not: Can a conflict of interest be mitigated by a councilmember excusing themselves from a particular decision? The issue is about the required qualifications for a Taylor councilmember, as set forth in the Charter, and Taylor citizens' right to “home rule.”
The Charter writing seems clear and home rule means the City’s citizens have a right to create their own charter and expect their charter will be followed just as each citizen is expected to comply with Texas laws and city ordinances.
The Taylor City Charter existed long before the election and was available for all candidates to read. When candidates sign up to run, they are normally advised to read the charter.
The City Charter was apparently written to prevent any conflict of interest whatsoever by stating the qualification requirements and that “Any Councilmember who shall cease to possess any of the qualifications shall immediately forfeit and vacate such office.”
It is apparent that those who wrote the City Charter, under the home rule provisions of State law, decided they did not want any mitigating process, like abstaining from a vote, to mitigate or resolve a conflict of interest.
The charter appears written to avoid any possibility of conflict and the consumption of time and resources to settle such issues. The Taylor City Charter clearly indicates if there is a conflict of interest, the seat must be "immediately" vacated.
The City Charter logic stands to reason because the District citizens would not be represented when a Councilperson abstains or excused themselves from a vote. Those citizens, represented by Christine Lopez or any other Councilperson with a conflict, would lose their representation on voting matters that may be important to some.
As written, the current Taylor City Charter avoids the burden of a conflict matter and the potential for absence of representation by requiring removal of the Councilmember. If the Charter writers had intended a recusal process, as allowed by the Texas Government Code, that process or something similar should have been included in the Charter. But, there is no conflict of interest recusal process provided in the Charter.
The complaint was filed by Mr. Herbert Brinkmeyer who competed against Councilwoman Lopez in the May 2016 election. Councilwoman Lopez has responded to basic questions on the issue, she is aware of the complaint, has legal consult, and stated an intent to contest Mr. Brinkmeyer’s complaint.
Contesting the complaint will involve more than a hearing in Taylor Municipal Court. The City Attorney is a City employee and was present at a City Council meeting where he gave supporting counsel to Ms. Lopez concerning her seat and the conflict of interest. So, the City Attorney’s office cannot prosecute the issue. In addition, the Judge of the Municipal Court is a Taylor City employee and cannot hear the case due to conflict of interest as a Taylor City employee subject to the City Council.
The complexities mean the issue must be decided by a different jurisdiction with a fair and impartial tribunal. Taylor Citizens will bear any costs. Costs that might be avoided if the City Attorney and Mayor will do their jobs.
More than two weeks before filing the complaint in municipal court, Mr. Brinkmeyer submitted the same complaint to the City Attorney, Ted Hejl, and expected a prompt professional response. The City Attorney has not provided a response to Mr. Brinkmeyer. That left Brinkmeyer with no answer and no option except to file a complaint to push the process along.
The refusal of the City Attorney, Ted Hejl, to give a timely response to Mr. Brinkmeyer’s questions places an unnecessary burden on the community. It is important to the electorate, as established by the City Charter, and the City Attorney has the resources, responsibility, and obligation to publicly answer the question.
The electorate should be fully informed about the complaint and when to expect a legal opinion regarding a possible conflict of interest involving an elected representative. Surely the City Attorney has notified the Mayor, Jessie Ancira.
A complaint questioning the validity of a governing body member cannot be suppressed and treated by ignorance, as was the Taylor Housing Authority missing $ millions. The Taylor City Charter specifically states the Councilmember “shall immediately forfeit and vacate such office.” Any split vote in the City Council now, with Lopez seated, becomes questionable.
The term "immediate" means the City Attorney and Mayor should give the conflict of interest matter complete and immediate public priority in order to comply with the City Charter. The charter is comparable to a Constitution for the city. Citizens need to know they can count on the rules we have made to govern our city.
However, the City Attorney and the Mayor have, so far, decided to publicly ignore the complaint, exactly as they ignored the request for help from the Taylor Housing Authority (THA). The THA debacle has cost Taylor taxpayers in the millions.
Two weeks is too long for the conflict of interest issue. The Mayor and City Attorney are politically gaming. They have had more than two weeks to answer a simple question. They have an obligation to serve Taylor citizens and their refusal has forced a citizen into municipal court. They now have an obligation to explain why they are foot dragging and playing with Taylor politics.
"Corruption in our courts and government will not be stopped by those at the top, they benefit too much. It can only be stopped from the bottom, by each voter becoming informed and holding city and county elected officials responsible.
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