Ethics complaint against Cibolo officials dismissed
An ethics complaint filed against four Cibolo City Council members has been dismissed, as an independent investigator found insufficient evidence to support any charge of violation of the Open Meetings Act.
Ross Fischer, general counsel for the State Bar of Texas, reviewed his findings to the Cibolo City Council at its Sept. 25 meeting. The complaint, filed by Cibolo resident Amy Palmer, alleged that council members Brian Byrd, Jay Hogue, Jennifer Schultes and Jim Russell violated a section of the city code of ethics “by gathering at a Northside restaurant on May 28 in violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act.
However, after interviewing the four council members and two Cibolo Economic Development Corporation members who attended the outing, Fischer said he found no evidence of intent, collusion or deliberation involving business being conducted at the dinner.
“From the evidence that I gathered, this was primarily a social function,” Fischer said. “It does not appear that everybody planned to go to be in a quorum and (council members) did not realize that was happening until it was upon them.
“Other than a reference on a Facebook post to ‘doing a little recruiting,’ there’s no evidence that what I would constitute ‘public business’ for … economic development purposes having taken place.”
Before the four involved council members took turns addressing council and Cibolo residents, the general counsel made a final statement: “My preliminary findings and my recommendation to you is there is insufficient evidence to show a violation of the Open Meetings Act.”
The complaint alleged that Hogue violated the same section by posting communications of information on social media related to city business, when such posting may be viewed and commented on by a quorum of the membership, in violation of the Open Meetings Act.
But Councilman Jim Russell, who insisted the inquest be conducted once the ethics complaint surfaced, explained how that could never have been the case.
Russell spoke of the timeline surrounding his 6:08 p.m. arrival at the Smashin Crab restaurant on Sonterra Boulevard in the Stone Oak area.
“I was the last one to arrive. It’s interesting that Mr. Hogue sent his post at 6:04 p.m. and tags everybody in the room,” Russell said. “And who does he not tag? He doesn’t tag me, because I’m not in the building and he doesn’t know I’m coming,” Russell said. “So any discussion that went on beforehand was done when there was no quorum there.”
Russell said he felt the investigation was fair, but necessary to clear the air — and clear the council members.
“I went on record in front of council, saying I insist this be investigated all the way, I don’t care what it costs, investigate it,” he said. “My integrity to me is everything. My honesty is everything. So I insisted that this be investigated.”
Russell reiterated the special counsel’s “insufficient evidence” finding.
“There was found to be no significant discussion,” the councilman said. “And even if there had been discussion, there was no quorum when that discussion took place. That all took place before my arrival in the building, which created a quorum.”
Hogue said he and EDC member Paul Buell had been pursuing this business “because one of the many things that our residents have asked for is sit-down type restaurants.”
Hogue said the pair first contacted the restaurant owner “and invited him to come see Cibolo and what Cibolo had to offer.” The two men drove the owner around the city.
“We showed him every neighborhood, we showed him every shopping center,” Hogue said. “But at that time, he didn’t believe we had the appropriate place for him to even consider opening a restaurant in Cibolo.”
Since then, the Santikos development has taken hold in Cibolo. Hogue said it might be a worthwhile venture to let the restaurant owner know of the newest Cibolo venture.
“We at no point discussed anything other than asking the owner to come look at the Santikos property,” Hogue said, “and this was only done by Mr. Buell and myself.”
Hogue said the investigation had cost the city more than $10,501 “to investigate something that was never intended to be anything but a social event.”
Hogue said he and fellow councilman Byrd were initially invited to the restaurant, but did not know that Schultes and Russell had been invited. Hogue said Byrd texted the others when he saw Russell arriving a few minutes later, offering to leave if the gathering presented any open meetings problem.
Schultes said she considered the charge “an egregious act” that she took very seriously.
“This situation has been extremely stressful on myself and my family. This has weighed on me horribly,” Schultes said. “At no time did I speak about city business with Councilman Russell, or witness Councilman Russell speaking of city business at all.
“I did not break the law. At no time did I speak about an agenda item … or deliberate anything other than what to order. That was it,” she added.
Councilman Byrd was the first of the four to address the council. He thanked residents of Cibolo and his District 3 constituents “for putting your trust in me and I count that as a serious responsibility that I do not take lightly.”
He said he spent weeks preparing a response for his 10-minute retort. But Byrd dispensed with that, choosing instead to address the accuser and the charge at hand.
“I would like to say that my accuser not being here tonight speaks volumes,” he said. “But I will say this: Mrs. Palmer, for the record, I forgive you. I forgive her for making an allegation that was unfounded and politically motivated. It does nothing but hurt all of us in Cibolo.”
Echoing general counsel Fischer’s findings, Byrd said there was nothing there to investigate in the first place.
“Our tax dollars were spent to investigate something that was completely uninvestigatable, because there was nothing involved there,” he said, “There was no crime, there was no infraction.
“With that,” he added, “I will leave the rest of my eight minutes and just say Mrs. Palmer, I forgive you.”