by BRAD ROLLINS
The San Marcos Ethics Review Commission has voted to hold a hearing on a resident’s complaint that planning & zoning commissioner Carter Morris violated city conflict of interest rules by advocating for a controversial mixed-use luxury development on Sessom Drive.
At an Aug. 13 meeting, the city council-appointed Ethics Review Commission discussed the complaints in executive session and then voted publicly on a motion by Toby Hooper to schedule a hearing on two complaints filed by Hopkins Street resident Forrest Fulkerson. Morris, meanwhile, says he is preparing an aggressive response through a legal team that includes Austin attorneys Peter J. Cesaro and Peter D. Kennedy, an experienced litigator, both partners in the firm Graves Doughterty Hearon & Moody.
Representing San Antonio developer Darren Casey in the purchase of residential property in Texas State University’s North Campus area, Morris, a real estate broker, recused himself from P&Z discussions of, and votes on, Casey’s request to re-zone five single-family homes to allow for higher-density, mixed-use development.
Morris also filed affidavits before a P&Z vote on Dec. 13, 2011 and again on Jan. 10, 2012 disclosing that his commission on the properties’ sale and purchase would constitute more than 10 percent of his income for the coming year. Both local and state laws require public officeholders and employees to make such sworn disclosures when abstaining from official action that would have a “special economic effect” on the officeholder.
Fulkerson’s July 10 complaints against Morris allege the planning & zoning commissioner ran afoul of the city’s ethics ordinance when he discussed the project with city council member John Thomaides during a breakfast meeting at Café on the Square in January 2012 and when he spoke on behalf of the project publicly before the San Marcos City Council later that same month. (At that meeting, the council rejected Casey’s Sessom development requests and again voted down a smaller version of the retail and student housing mid-rise this June. Thomaides voted against the rezoning and land use map amendments both times.)
City officials who disclose potential conflicts are required to “immediately refrain from further participation in the matter, including discussions with any person likely to consider the matter, from the time he or she discovers or reasonably should have discovered the matter triggering the recusal,” according to Chapter 2, Article 5 of San Marcos City Code.
The city ethics ordinance requires the review commission to consider complaints first in private to see if they are properly filed and that they allege facts that would constitute an ethics violation; the initial vote taken last week was not a finding that Morris is guilty of violating state or local law.
Morris told the Mercury he is not guilty of violating either and that he would would vigorously defend himself against the allegations.
”I’ve put in many years of service to the city of San Marcos. I sat on the San Marcos Ethics Commission, the State Bar of Texas Ethics Committee and am currently a member and vice chair of the San Marcos Planning & Zoning Commission. I do not believe in any way shape or form that I’ve done anything unethical on any of these boards and I’ve retained legal counsel” to handle his response to Fulkerson’s allegations.
Commission chair Kathy Dial told the San Marcos Mercury this week that a time and date for the hearing has not yet been set.
San Marcos attorney John McGlothlin, the only ethics commission member to vote against considering the complaints further, said he does not think either the breakfast meeting with Thomaides or Morris’ address to the city council amount to ethics code violations.
”Subsequent to his recusal and the conclusion of P&Z consideration of the matter, I don’t think the complaint alleged that Mr. Morris had any official capacity with the city as it related to later council deliberations. Assuming every fact pled to [in Fulkerson’s complaint] is true, I don’t think they constitute ethics violations,” McGlothlin said.
Fulkerson said he decided to pursue the complaints more than a year and a half after the alleged infractions to set an example for other city officials.
Fulkerson said, ”I know it’s common practice for city officials to go ahead and promote their own projects after recusing themselves. I know it’s business. But I’d like to change the culture up at the city where our officials at least try to obey our rules.”
DISCLOSURE: McGlothlin represents the San Marcos Mercury and San Marcos Mercury Publisher Brad Rollins in pending civil litigation.
COVER: Planning & Zoning Commissioner Carter Morris, center, listens to testimony during a meeting in December 2011. MERCURY PHOTO by BRAD ROLLINSEmail | Print