By LAMAR HANKINS
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.
For 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.Email | Print