San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

by BRAD ROLLINS

Hurtling for four chaotic days headlong toward a snap decision to purge one of their appointees, a San Marcos City Council majority on Tuesday decided instead against removing planning commissioner Carter Morris from his post.

Carter Morris

Carter Morris

After Morris refused informal, and then formal, requests from the council for his resignation, members followed through on their threat to swiftly consider kicking him off the San Marcos Planning & Zoning Commission during a packed hearing described by council member Jude Prather  as a regrettable “public shame-fest.” While representing San Antonio developer Darren Casey in 2011, Morris recused himself from P&Z votes on Casey’s projects but, in a group email, organized individual meetings between Casey, himself and each of his planning commissioner colleagues. That series of meetings almost exactly two years ago is being investigated by police as a possible violation of the Open Meetings Act.

Council member John Thomaides’ motion to remove Morris failed 2-5 with support from council member Shane Scott.

“Mr. Morris will have his day in court. That’s where the issue of his guilt or innocent will be decided. This is about conduct and I just can’t accept his conduct,” Thomaides said. “It’s a privilege and not a right to be on a commission. It’s about public service, not self-service.”

Mayor Daniel Guerrero and council members Prather, Wayne Becak, Kim Porterfield and Ryan Thomason voted against Morris’ removal. Prather said just before roll call that he continues to think Morris should resign of his own accord.

At one point in their deliberations, Becak proposed a substitute motion that would allow Morris to keep his seat on P&Z unless he is convicted in court of violating the Open Meetings Act, the allegation made by resident Forrest Fulkerson in a complaint being investigated by San Marcos Police Department Assistant Chief Chase Stapp.

“Criminal charges have been alleged. Until he has his day in court and is found guilty or innocent, I don’t want to remove him,” Becak said.

Stapp has said he will forward the results of his investigation to District Attorney Sherri Tibbe and leave it to her to decide whether to pursue what would be the rough equivalent of Class B misdemeanor offenses. On Sept. 24, council members met in executive session and collectively decided to quietly ask for Morris’ resignation; he declined to offer it when Guerrero asked him in a phone call to step aside. On Friday, the council moved to ratchet up pressure on Morris by demanding his resignation by noon Saturday, a request he also rebuffed.

“People ask me ‘Why don’t you just resign?’ The reason why is y’all are calling me unethical and I’m not. … I’m here to clear my name,” Morris told council members on Tuesday.

His attorney, David Gonzalez, said the four-day notice given Morris of the upcoming vote to remove him was absurdly short; in a letter to the city clerk over the weekend, the attorney had asked for at least 30 days to allow Morris to mount a defense. The council barreled forward with tonight’s hearing and vote, anyway. Once the talking started, however, council members seemed to heed the argument that they were being hasty in kicking off Morris before he has been indicted, much less convicted, of a crime.

“Is the building on fire? I don’t get what the hurry is,” Thomason said, wondering why council members rushed toward a vote while they know the police department has an active inquiry into whether Morris and eight other current and former planning commissioners acted properly. Guerrero likewise called the proposal to remove Morris “premature.”

“We need to decide based on evidence, based on investigation, based on review,” the mayor said.

Morris, while expressing contrition for the questionable meetings, said he did nothing wrong on purpose and would not repeat the mistakes he made in October 2011 as a relatively new planning commissioner. He also said he will not seek re-appointment when his current term expires in February.

“I did not think I was doing anything wrong. Today, as I look it, it doesn’t look good. … I’ve learned a lot from this process,” Morris said.

The council vote was met with relief by Morris, his attorneys and his parents — Randall Morris, the developer, and Kathy Morris, the tough, shrewd former San Marcos mayor who sat conspicuously on the front row during the proceedings. Morris’ supporters included former State Rep. Patrick M. Rose, a longtime friend, and San Marcos Area Board of Realtors president Barrie Breed who said Morris likely made mistakes in his handling of the Casey situation but did not appear to have meant to break the law. Breed called for de-escalation of fights among community members over new development and the strains it places on the local environment, culture and quality of life.

There is no middle ground in San Marcos politics, Breed lamented, “you are either a radical green who says ‘Not here. Not now. Not ever’ to everything. Or you are a pro-growth raper and pillager.”

Morris was also assisted by a truly strange-bedfellows ally in Thom Prentice, the city council contender who distinguishes himself at every candidate debate and appearance with unrelenting screeds against capitalism, global warming and development. But Prentice stepped up Tuesday to raise his voice against the council’s blitz to remove Morris.

“Last time I was here, it was to make sure Carter Morris was nailed by the ethics commission [but] I oppose this rushed job. I do not think this is a just or democratic process,” Prentice said.

While he was at it, Prentice laid an attack on City Attorney Michael Cosentino for what Prentice said was a ridiculously broad interpretation of the Open Meetings Act that, in some cases, prevents council members from answering email and mail from their constituents. Notably, Cosentino declined at one point in the discussion to say whether he thought the meetings arranged by Morris amount to violations of the Open Meetings Act.

Porterfield said the council was advised ably by Cosentino when deciding what to do about Morris and said she does not think appointees should push the envelope with transparency laws. But she also suggested she is suspicious about how the two-year-old allegations against Morris managed to reach a crescendo in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 5 city council election.

“There are a lot of things I don’t like about this, starting with Mr. Morris’ actions. …We recognize that there are somewhat gray areas in the Open Meetings Act. That’s where we need to count on sound reasoning and discretion. People have a right to see the sausage being made,” Porterfield said, but added: “The question now is: What is best for city? I believe removing Mr. Morris from the planning commission will cause more of a rift and not solve anything.”

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4 thoughts on “Morris emerges in one piece from city council crucible

  1. Cosentino has always had some pretty wacky interpretations of the Open Meetings laws. I remember when I was covering the whole Springtown/Downtown Association fracas in 2009, he told council members they were risking a “rolling quorum” by speaking to citizens, specifically downtown association members, regarding concerns about incentives for Springtown that collided with the city’s master downtown plan.

    As you can see in the story I wrote on this site (‘Rolling quorum’ questions remain for council – 7/7/09) nobody at the Texas Attorney General’s office had any clue what that term even meant.

  2. Sean, Your interpretation, although sounding factual, is full of errors.
    You use the words “open meeting act”, and don’t factually describe any real elements of the act that are supposedly to be misrepresented. You only state that it is wrongly interpreted.

    The AG’s office has put out a handbook and an “open meeting act made easy” for attorneys and all others to read so these questions can be answered. If those two sources from the AG’s office weren’t enough, then the AG’s opinion “GA-0326” describes in full what an open meetings violation of a rolling quorum, daisy chain quorum, or walking quorum are.

    I suggest that you go there before you post erroneous pokings toward Micheal Cosetino. Methinks that you have an agenda!

  3. I’ve actually read that notebook cover-to-cover, and held many people accountable for failing to follow it, but thanks for the suggestion. I could probably use it. Having been a political reporter and staffer for several years, as well as being the editor of this publication when it was known under a different name, I am, as you might guess, a complete idiot.

    But, back to that publication. Just to be sure, I went back and read it. Then, to be extra-sure, I did a Crtl-F search on the word “rolling.” It was nowhere to be found. I’m almost positive you just made “daisy chain” up.

    Now that’s dealt with, let’s look at this AG opinion, the summary of which reads: “Members of a governmental body who knowingly conspire to gather in numbers that do not physically constitute a quorum at any one time but who through successive gatherings secretly discuss a public matter with a quorum of that body violate section 551.143 of the Open Meetings Act. This section is not on its face void for vagueness.”

    What, if anything, does that have to do with Cosentino advising the council not to meet with the downtown association as individual members? Don’t bother answering, because we both know it does not. This was a meeting called by citizens who were naturally concerned about the city abandoning a downtown master plan in favor of an incentives bonanza. I remember all of that very, very clearly. Cosentino’s advice smelled like BS then and the odor has not improved in the past three years.

    To quote Jay-Z, “I ain’t passed the bar, but I know a little bit.” I know that the idea a councilperson can’t talk to any citizen about any topic is, on it’s face, absurd. Yet, that is exactly the advice that was given to the council at that time. Pam Couch confirmed it on-the-record. When I confronted Cosentino about it, he inferred I was in the back pocket of Scott Gregson and Allen Shy for even asking the question, before ducking behind attorney-client privilege, when all I wanted to know (after speaking with the AG’s office) is where he got the legal idea (under Texas open meetings law) of what a “rolling quorum is”. It wasn’t there then. It isn’t there now. I’m basing that statement directly off the two sources you suggested.

    And let’s not forget that in 2009, Susan Narvaiz was more than willing to give away the store for Springtown incentives, and didn’t seem to give a damn she was stabbing downtown business owners in the back. Yeah, I worked for one, but he never gave me any direction on where to take that story. I didn’t need direction. It spoke for itself.

    As far as an agenda, yeah. I absolutely have one. I’m anti-BS and pro-transparency.

    What’s your agenda?

  4. Sean, I know that you are aching to get at the truth, but looking in at this response, it does look like you have an agenda. Muchos palabras mi amigo all signifying nothing. I happened to look up the Atty Generals Opinion GA 0326 that was mentioned above and discovered that in fact there was mention of a “Daisy Chain of members the sum of whom constitute a quorum” by Greg Abbot the then Atty General. So what else could you be wrong about? Although your first comment seems to throw a shadow on the advice that Micheal Cosentino gave on some earlier meeting, the real issue is with Carter Morris sending an email to all of the P&Z members describing in detail persons attending and times of attendance. This is prima facia evidence in a case of conspiring to circumvent the Open Meeting Act, as described by 551.143. What else is there?

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