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October 21st, 2008
Guest Commentary: Narvaiz’ religious strategy for re-election


Susan Narvaiz, San Marcos’ current mayor and candidate for re-election, frequently injects religion into her campaign and has used the taxpayers’ money to do so.

Susan NarvaizFor several years, Narvaiz has used funds appropriated for city council expenses to host breakfasts for local clergy, usually every other month, in city facilities. Each “Breakfast with Mayor and Clergy” begins with an invocation and ends with a “closing prayer.” Unless you are a religious leader, you’re not an invited guest.

The events constitute religious meetings that enable the mayor to reach out to religious leaders for her own political purposes at public expense. They are not sponsored by the city council and are not official city functions authorized by any action of the city council. While the City of San Marcos charter has no religious test for serving as mayor, Narvaiz has courted the city’s ministers and religious leaders at public expense. Since at least 2004, she has maintained this perpetual outreach to the religious leaders and paid for it with taxpayer funds.

The mayor has continued her outreach to the religious community through her current campaign for re-election, the slogan for which is “Forward Progress, Higher Purpose.” Her campaign website explains the meaning and significance of her slogan:

“I believe that each of us exists to fulfill a specific purpose in a bigger plan, God’s plan,” the site says. “Each of us is called to use our gifts and talents to serve others. … And when we do, we will change the lives of those around us for the better. We will be people of character. We will be servant leaders and we will be what God has called each of us to be. There is no higher purpose.”

While many of us may share these views, we should remember that Narvaiz is not running for an ecclesiastical office. She is campaigning for a secular public office.  Her personal religious views should not be bankrolled with the taxpayers’ money, as they have been for the last four years.

A city council resolution adopted in 2005 permits council members to be reimbursed for expenses they incur while engaging in “the conduct of official city business.”  The resolution lists the kinds of expenses that can be reimbursed. The list of allowable expenses does not include hosting breakfasts for clergy.

According to records obtained through the Texas Public Information Act, the “Breakfast with Mayor and Clergy” events have gone on since 2004. Most have been held at the San Marcos Activity Center or at City Hall, with the meeting facility and food paid for by city funds. Because of the way the records are kept, it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine exactly how much public money has been spent on these events.

The agendas and follow-up letters from Mayor Narvaiz to participants indicate the religious nature of the events:

• Mayor is reported to have said at the Nov. 17, 2004, breakfast that she believes prayer is required everywhere, and that she seeks guidance from a higher power.

• Mayor tells clergy that “You have power from the pulpit (to obtain benefits from the city).”

• Mayor expresses appreciation for prayers for the “Council and Government” (which seems to be a subtle way to encourage clergy to promote her and her agenda from the pulpit).

• An attendee is quoted as saying to the mayor that “(It is a) great time for religion in San Marcos. There’s an interest in religion here. Hope City recognizes the need…”

While most agenda items at these breakfasts were of general interest to citizens, no one but clergy and other religious leaders were invited. And the mayor did not hold similar regular events for members of other professions and groups within the city.

Based on letters, lists of those in attendance at the breakfasts, lists of those notified of the breakfasts, faxes, emails, and a “Clergy Breakfast Check List” (which outlines staff responsibilities for organizing and carrying out the breakfast events), Narvaiz has used the staff in the city clerk’s office to arrange, organize, and promote these breakfasts, none of which are “official city business.”

There are no records from which the amount of staff time spent on these events can be calculated.  One expenditure printout reveals that nearly $500 was paid to Jason’s Deli on Nov. 17, 2004, one of the dates that coincides with a Mayor’s breakfast.

When the cost of food, floral decorations, preparation of written materials and programs, staff time for organizing and preparing for the meetings, rental of the facilities, and all other expenses related to these events are taken into account, each clergy breakfast or event may have exceeded $1,000. Narvaiz appears to have conducted at least 16 of these events since 2004.

On Aug. 15, 2007, the mayor hosted a “Breakfast and tour with Mayor and Clergy” bus trip that included both breakfast and lunch. Once again, this was not an official city event, but was paid for with public funds. On June 20, 2006, an “Emergency Clergy Meeting” was called by the Mayor to discuss parking and litter problems in the Rio Vista Dam area with clergy and religious leaders.

The mayor’s breakfasts and related events, paid for by public funds, clearly qualify as “a government practice,” as that has been defined by the U. S. Supreme Court.  They have a primary purpose to advance religion and entangle city government with religion. Because of the prayers offered by clergy at the mayor’s invitation at the beginning and end of the events, the events have the flavor and appearance of religious activities.

The mayor’s frequent comments and actions make clear that she is endorsing religion and religious practice, something she is free to do as a private person, but not in her official capacity as mayor and at public expense without violating the Constitution.

I have always been a vigorous supporter of the religious freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, and I believe just as strongly in the separation of church and state. For these reasons, I oppose the exploitation of religion for political gain, as Narvaiz has done, especially when taxpayer dollars are used in the effort.

The mayor should be required to reimburse the thousands of dollars of public funds – as much as $16,000 by my calculation – used to pay for her perpetual campaign to the religious community. But it is equally important that the mayor cease officially sponsoring these religious events at the expense of, and in the name of, taxpayers.

Lamar Hankins is a former San Marcos City Attorney now practicing law in San Marcos.

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12 thoughts on “Guest Commentary: Narvaiz’ religious strategy for re-election

  1. I guess the State of the City address last week was also a “religious activity” since it began and ended with prayer too, huh? I see no issue with reaching out to the clergy who are an important part of the civic leadership of this community.

  2. Since often church membership breaks along racial lines I see Susan’s efforts as promoting communication among different groups through the most efficient means available. I guess it works since we don’t seem to have a big problem with race relations in San Marcos. I have no problem if Susan wants to keep buying the preachers some pastries. If she loses (which she won’t) I hope Dave Newman will be as proactive in fostering communication among diverse groups. Perhaps he’ll even find a way to include bitter athiests.

  3. As a pastor in San Marcos, I have attended many of the breakfasts described in the article. In 2004, I was apprehensive about the mayor’s motive. Was the mayor trying to get more votes? Or maybe promoting a religious agenda in our ‘secular’ government? I have found neither to be the case. The mayor is connecting with leaders that are more connected with the social and economic situation of San Marcos than probably any other ‘profession or group’.

    From my experience the agenda is clear: communicate the city’s agenda to community leaders so that they will disseminate the information to their congregants. EXAMPLE: 2005 Hurricane Rita was bearing down on Central Texas. The city Government needed to communicate with the public asap. Pastors played a vital role in that process. Ken Bell and other leaders gave instructions on how to assist locals and evacuees. I am SURE the taxpayers were pleased that approx. 30 churches were standing by to offer assistance in food, clothing, shelter, and counseling. (from their own expense acct NOT taxpayers)

    There is a short time available for leaders to express concerns. These are not concerns about how evil the government is or how to get more prayer in the schools. The concerns deal with cleaning up neighborhoods, the homeless problem, drugs in parks, low-income housing, relations with TX State, etc.

    Your quote: “…the events have the flavor and appearance of religious activities” is comical. If these events are ‘religious activities’ I might want to quit my post. Your reasoning is that prayer is offered at the beginning. Yes, we pray before the mtg and to close the mtg. Do you realize that prayer has been offered at the beginning of every gathering of the US Congress since the beginning of our government? The President sponsors a Prayer Breakfast every year. You support the Constitution, but the Constitution does not include the separation of church and state. That was mentioned in a letter written after the fact. Its intent was to keep government from controlling religious expression. Go back and read all the historical references of Presidents and other government leaders praying IN office (not just as private citizens).

    Of course these comments are my own and may not represent the Mayor.
    -Robin Steele

  4. There shouldn’t be a prayer at the beginning and end of the State of the City Address, or before a City Council meeting, or before a Commissioner’s Court meeting, or before a School Board meeting. Period.
    And I am especially offended that my tax dollars are being spent for an invitation only bible study. good god.

  5. I am very glad that prayer is offered not only at the begining but also the end of such meetings. I am very glad to know that Congress does not meet, even for a 5 minute vote, and never has, withOUT offering a prayer.
    To me anyone who would be offended by such things needs a road map with directions to every church in their town. They need help getting to one and they need prayer.

    And yes “Bitter Citizen” God IS good !! Thank you for making that point!!

  6. There is no doubt that reaching out to religious leaders is a direct connection to those in tuned with the community’s needs, temporal and spiritual, and as Phil H. noted, enfranchising racial groups who are less likely to participate in the civic process. Are there political benefits? Of course. However, everything any elected official does is both official and political at the same time. So to me the issue is a wash.

    Politically speaking, my best guess is that this helps the mayor so her detractors ought to give pause before foaming at the mouth over a perceived scandal.

    And for what its worth, the mayor clearly in this candidate field is a giant among dwarfs in terms of her understanding of the city’s issues and command of the facts. I’m working on a story on Newman’s and McCarthy’s galling looseness and inaccuracy with simple facts during the debates as well as a range of stories that we think offer a more detailed and textured look at local politics than in other coverage one might find. So I hope those who came to this site for the heat will check back periodically for the light.

  7. I sure do not see a problem with the mayor meeting a group of leaders of her constituents on a regular basis for feedback. Sounds like to me she has used exceptional judgment in the use of her time. So as a taxpayer, I want to thank her for her interest in communicating with as many of us as possible on the limited budget she has, and for using her intelligence to do so. This example of thinking outside the box is exactly what our other elected officials need to do. Maybe then we would not need such increases in government services. Maybe Mr. Hankins should come up with some alternate way of duplicating the mayors communication process if he really wants to be of public service.

  8. I am firm believer in the separation of church and state but I feel it is very important our community leaders reach out to religious leaders because churches are such a big part of our community.

    On another note: I do not think prayer should take place before or after civic meetings and events. By doing so we are assuming that everyone is Christian and setting that as the de facto religion of the city. Like it or not, we are not a Christian nation. We are a nation comprised of people with many different beliefs, founded on the principles of religious freedom and tolerance. Most of the leaders during the Enlightenment and many of our founding fathers were deists or even agnostic (in fact “One Nation Under God” didn’t come about until the 40’s and 50’s and only in response to communism).

    In short, it is the individuals, not the city or state’s right to choose if, when and where we should pray.

  9. If you really believe in the separation of church and state, then you can’t accept public funds being spent to court religious leaders for political purposes. I want my religion to be private and I don’t want slimy governments being dragged into it. Religion and belief are private and shouldn’t be corrupted by politicians.

    I fear that too many people who want government doing dirty work for religion aren’t firm enough in their beliefs to be saved. I hope that when the roll is called up yonder, y’all will be there with me, but I don’t think getting religion filthy with government is the way to get there.

  10. I am another pastor in San Marcos who has regularly attended these meetings since 2004, and I find the information in this report grossly inaccurate and misleading.

    The pastors in our community are collectively in regular contact with thousands of San Marcos residents. These meetings with the clergy have frequently included presentations, attendance, and participation by city officials other than the mayor (off the top of my head, I recall the attendance of City Manager Rick Menchaca, Councilman John Thomaides, Councilwoman Kim Porterfield, Marshall Ken Bell, Police Chief Howard Williams, and I know there have been others), which does indicate a gathering of city business. In addition to receiving presentations from city officials, these meetings provide an opportunity for the clergy to give feedback to the mayor and/or city officials about needs facing the people in the community churches who are also concerned citizens. I have found the meetings incredibly helpful and valuable to the betterment of our community. I’m grateful to know what’s going on in the city and for the opportunity to communicate with city officials. It’s not about politics, it’s not about religion, it’s about working together across all boundaries to make our city the best it can be. I can understand why the motive of these meetings could be in question, but this article crosses over from asking a good question to making a false accusation.

    Additionally, because of these meetings, I have been made aware of volunteer opportunities in the community that I have filled myself and that I have made others aware of. Regardless of who the mayor of San Marcos is, these meetings should continue.

    Furthermore, the lack of clergy testimony in this report also contributes to its lack of credibility. The accusation that the mayor has used this time for her personal, political gain is nothing more than an assumption that is simply not warranted.

    Finally, I also stand in support of Robin Steele’s comments to this report.

  11. And don’t forget her loan to the Masters School. Below 4% interest for something like $500K. Now the city is a bank for religious schools. Taxpayer money for a institution that prohibits non-Christians from attending.

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