How a neighborhood association has come to dominate Alamo Heights

Since its key role in defeating a multimillion-dollar bond issue for new city facilities in November 2009, the Alamo Heights Neighborhood Association (AHNA) has grown to be an influential player in local politics in the upper-income municipality. Its influence grew further after the neighborhood association formed a political action committee backing three newcomers swept into office in May on a wave of populist rage over the attempted $10.3 million bond referendum many had deemed lavish. Local concerns about a “shadow government” setting up shop in Alamo Heights have simmered ever since, but now a collection of emails released under an open-records request sheds light on recent possible violations of state open meetings law while demonstrating just how tight the bond between AHNA and City Hall has grown.

Consider that when U.S. Representative Lamar Smith was presented with a key to the city, the honors weren’t carried out at City Hall, but at a private AHNA dinner at an upstairs banquet room at H-E-B’s Central Market. Two weeks prior, when Alamo Heights Mayor Louis Cooper canceled a scheduled council meeting, citing a lack of agenda items requiring action, he instead delivered his state-of-the-city address to association members at another closed-to-the-public affair.

“I’m displeased with cancelling council meetings and following up with a private, political group with restrictive attendance,” said former councilman and mayor pro tem Bill Kiel, who drafted the city’s ethics policy in 2006. “It appears that council is meeting more often on the second floor of Central Market with a private political group than in council chambers with citizens that elected them.”

The AHNA is registered as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, maintaining its legal right to lobby for legislation and participate in political campaigns and elections.

At the February 1 meeting with Rep. Smith, four councilmembers and the mayor were present, raising the potential for open meetings violations. A limited account of the meeting (at which local media were turned away) is found in the AHNA newsletter The Advocate. The banquet’s décor and food are described in some detail before it is stated: “`AHNA` Founding President John Joseph introduced Congressman Smith to the standing room only audience of AHNA members and city officials, which included the mayor and city council members. Mayor Louis Cooper presented Congressman Smith with a key to the city.”

State open meeting law allows for elected representatives to meet in purely social settings provided no city business is discussed, but questions have been raised by Kiel and others about the political nature of such gatherings.

Responding to allegations of a possible violation, City Attorney Mike Brenan cited provisions of the open meetings act to justify the council-packed gathering in a February 14 email: “I was told there was to be no discussion of Alamo Heights business but rather congressional issues with Congressman Smith. Assuming that is correct, there was no meeting or gathering as defined in the Texas Open Meetings Act.”

Judging by the emails, AHNA President Joseph didn’t betray any concern for possible open-meetings violations when he made sure that “one or possibly two” AH police officers could provide security for the event in an email to Police Chief Rick Pruitt. However, City Attorney Brenan asked interim City Manager Shawn Eddy not to publish a notice of the meeting. Eddy had requested a public posting after four of the city’s five council members announced their plans to attend. Brenan wrote: “I think it might be better not to publish a notice of the AHNA luncheon. You should admonish the mayor not to permit any discussion of city business so that in essence the luncheon will not be a meeting as defined in the Open Meetings Act.”

Joseph* responds: “Ok, I understand. Since this’ll be more of a speech and a business meeting there won’t be an agenda and I don’t foresee any CoAH (City of Alamo Heights) business being discussed.”

To residents not on the invite list, it defies logic that no city business was discussed. The same newsletter piece detailing decorations for Smith’s arrival, describes how after his speech “the Congressman answered questions on a wide variety of topics for about half an hour.”

And the seemingly benign key-to-the-city presentation by Cooper — a ceremonial gesture, but clearly official city business — may ultimately prove to be the most compelling evidence for critics. Yet machinations behind the Smith meeting may represent just the tip of the iceberg, as other emails show how deeply the city-AHNA partnership is growing. This correspondence contains discussion of mundane matters, such as linking the city website to AHNA and the confirmation of appointments of AHNA members to key city committees — including Joseph’s own appointment to the newly formed Facilities Committee. Expect a lot more discussion on these recent shifts in council behavior leading up to May’s election.

*Due to an editing error, this quote was originally attributed to interim City Manager Shawn Eddy.

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