The concern was sufficient to prompt STISD Superintendent Dr. Brett Belmarez to caution board members at their April 8 session — a meeting originally canceled — that “others” may have participated in what the act terms a “walking quorum,” in which members of a board use social media to discuss and decide on subjects that should be addressed in a public meeting.
Belmarez would only say that “others” may have included some board members and community members.
Appropriately, the first item on the agenda, after the pledge of allegiance, was a 12-minute video — produced by the Texas Attorney General — on the act and its legal requirements for board members.
It mandates that all board members must complete a training course on the act within 90 days of their election.
“Having this on the agenda was no coincidence,” Belmarez says.
At issue was not only certain agenda items but the meeting itself.
In a “board update,” written and compiled by Belmarez and distributed to board members five days before the April session was scheduled, board President Keith Petrus asked Belmarez to poll each board member about whether to have a meeting.
“A board meeting in April wasn’t needed,” Belmarez says, “because of the lack of business that needed to be presented to the trustees for approval.”
But when asked, five of seven trustees favored an April meeting — two originally voted for May then changed to April — because, Trustee Edward Polasek replied, “for Mr. (James) Bennett’s items.”
Belmarez called the rushed meeting “highly unorthodox.”
Eight days later, in the next edition of “board update,” he complained of not having received in writing the questions of subtopics on the non-traditional agenda items.
“Knowing the questions in advance is respectful, professional, courteous and prevents surprises,” he wrote.
Significantly, two of Bennett’s items prompted the caution Belmarez issued.
“On advice of legal council, and based on the fact that administration is aware that there has been or that there is contemplated a reported/alleged violation or violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act in the form of a ‘walking quorum,’ administration must refrain from any discussion of or involvement in this item,” Belmarez read.
“To discuss, deliberate, or to be, in any way, involved in this item, may render or later find that administration is complicit with, condones or is involved in an item derived outside of a properly posted meeting.”
His statement hints that some items got placed on the agenda through the use of a walking quorum.
The two items concerned the status of the Athletic Booster Club — the subject of enmity between the club and Athletic Director Russell Joy, and a review of board policy that allows Belmarez to spend up to $50,000 without board review during the construction of the district’s new elementary school.
“I am at a loss to know what I am to do about this,” Petrus said. “This process apparently has been tainted by something that is beyond my control…I’m kind of throwing my hands up.”
Citing the advice of legal counsel, the board took no action on the Athletic Booster Club item, and it postponed the superintendent’s spending authority discussion until its next regular meeting, May 13.
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.