Hutto city council member accused of open meeting violation in announcing ethics complaint

Investigations

HUTTO, Texas (KXAN) — The Hutto City Council spent nearly 20 minutes Thursday night trying to decide whether to punish a council member for publicly filing an ethics complaint against a fellow council member during an August 1 public meeting.

BACKGROUND: Hutto councilwoman’s wedding draws ethics complaint

Council member Tanner Rose told the public during the August 1 council meeting he was filing an ethics complaint against council member Patti Turner-Martinez for her use of a city park to hold her June 22 wedding. The park was not open to the public for rental at the time.

The park didn’t open to the public until July 4, however, the city refused two other requests from taxpayers to rent the same park Turner-Martinez used to hold her wedding. Those requests were sent to the city on July 11 and 23.

Both requests were denied with employees in two separate departments telling those taxpayers the park was not available to the public for wedding rentals.

Thursday night’s council agenda showed council was considering “possible action on a resolution” to possibly punish Rose for a supposed violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act. Hutto City Attorney Mike Shaunessy told council he believed Rose committed a “technical” violation of the act, but did not cite a specific section number during his nearly 20 minute-long presentation to council.

“This was a violation in respect to the intent and spirit of the act. There was no substantive violation,” Shaunessy told council. The city’s attorney explained he believed Rose made a mistake when he told the public about his filing of the ethics complaint because the announcement was not part of the meeting agenda.

Hutto City Attorney Mike Shaunessy told council during an August 15, 2019 meeting that he believed Councilman Tanner Rose violated the “spirit” of the TX Open Meetings Act by publicly discussing an ethics complaint he filed and not having that discussion placed on the official meeting agenda. (Credit: Jody Barr/KXAN)

Shaunessy said council would have violated the act had there been discussion of the ethics complaint without the public being provided notice on the published agenda.

Hutto council members were allowed to make announcements and comments until “just a few months ago,” according to Shaunessy. However, Shaunessy advised council to not include council comments/announcements in council meetings any longer because he said members could violate the state’s open meetings laws if they discuss matters during their comment time that are not published on that meeting’s agenda.

“All I’m trying to do is say, just remember, the act is out there and it’s probably overly-protective for a good reason, but it’s overly-protective, so watch out,” Shaunessy told KXAN following Thursday night’s council meeting.

Shaunessy admitted his council presentation was merely a reminder for council members to be aware of the things they say from the dais.

“What do you believe this was really all about?” KXAN Investigator Jody Barr asked Rose following the meeting.

“I think it was publicly getting my hand slapped for what went down the two weeks prior with the announcement around the ethics violation,” Rose said.

“I think it was just to have a public reprimand for the violation — or perceived violation of the open meetings act,” Rose said.

The councilman stopped short of calling the discussion about him Thursday night retaliation, saying: “I think the public could perceive it that way.”

Shaunessy told KXAN after the meeting his presentation was not retaliation and was simply a reminder to all seven council members about the rules of the act.

“I don’t think I did anything wrong,” the freshman council member told KXAN. “If I did violate the Open Meetings Act, I didn’t have anywhere to make that announcement since there’s no city council comment, there’s no section for community announcements, so I didn’t have an option to do that, so I did what I thought was the correct way.”

The target of Rose’s ethics complaint, council member Patti Turner-Martinez, voted against sanctioning Rose for announcing the ethics complaint in public. “I don’t believe there’s grounds for any action to be taken tonight, but I do want to just remind everybody that there’s a fine line,” Turner-Martinez said.

“That should have been an agenda item if he wanted it to be addressed,” Turner-Martinez added.

“I don’t know if there’s any action that we as a council can take,” Hutto Mayor Pro-tem Tom Hines said just before the council vote Thursday night. “I don’t know if there’s any penalties in our bylaws, in our charter. I think that would be more of a state issue because there was a technical violation.”

Council voted unanimously to dismiss the agenda item against Rose and found no violation on Rose’s part. Rose recused himself before the vote and filed a conflict of interest form with the city secretary.

“I think we have a perception of doing things behind closed doors and not open to the public, so I want to make sure everything I do is as public and open to the public as possible,” Rose told KXAN.

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