Weslaco city leaders will redo the second half of a City Commission meeting held last week after throwing out all members of the public from the meeting, which was required by law to be open.
Mayor Pro Tem John Cuellar ordered Chief Michael Kelley to clear the room Tuesday as some audience members became vocal. Cuellar said last week that an anonymous threat made to the Police Department had heightened tension and made him more cautious.
A tape of that call released Monday reveals that it was neither anonymous nor a threat, but a warning from one of the department’s own officers that there could be trouble at the meeting.
“There’s a lot of trash talk on Facebook that a lot of people are going to show up and cause problems,” Cpl. Alvino Flores told Administrative Assistant Elizabeth Garcia. “I know that normally it’s just the chief of police that shows up to those things, but I imagine it would be a good idea to have someone else there.”
Flores said he was off work but wanted to give the department a “heads-up” that the meeting could get rowdy.
“You wouldn’t want anything to happen there, and I guess some people are upset at all the things they’re trying to get passed before they’re removed,” he said.
Kelley did indeed bring a second officer with him to the meeting.
The City Commission called the special meeting after the election but before the new mayor and commissioner aligned with the minority had been sworn in. Several of the meeting items included appointing people to new boards, including a complete overhaul of the Economic Development Corp. board.
Cuellar ordered the room cleared after critics of his slate and allies of the minority slate began laughing and shouting. Kelley complied and removed all members of the public – including those who were not making noise – and posted an officer at the door so no one could re-enter.
The commission then continued to vote on four more items, including approving $750,000 to improve Sugarcane Drive and miscellaneous budget amendments.
The incident sparked questions that the city may have violated the Texas Open Meetings Act, which requires that elected officials conduct city business only in a venue open to the public.
City Attorney Ramon Vela did not immediately object to the removal of the public from the meeting that night, but said it later became clear to him that continuing the meeting was likely a violation.
“I conferred with the Attorney General’s Office the following day and we agreed,” he said. “In my opinion, that part of it was not open to the public. We put (the items) on the agenda and posted them again because if they’re challenged in court, they’re voidable.”
He said he believed considering the items anew would protect the city from any other consequences for holding a closed meeting.
City Manager Leo Olivares said that even though staff had been mistaken about the anonymity of the call to the Police Department, it was still grounds for concern.
“It doesn’t change the underlying fact that … there was some anonymous discussion of a fight,” he said. “Alvino Flores obviously thought it was important enough to report it.”
Kelley said the characterization of the call as an anonymous threat had been a miscommunication. He said Garcia passed the message along to him without mentioning who had called and he passed it along to the city manager.
“It kind of snowballed from there,” he said. “I didn’t listen to it myself until Wednesday when I figured after the fiasco Tuesday night people would want to hear it.”