Weslaco leaders oust public from city commission meeting, citing anonymous threat

By Elizabeth Findell
The Monitor
Originally published Nov. 14, 2013

City Manager Leo Olivares said police Chief Michael Kelley had notified him shortly before the City Commission meeting began at 5:30 p.m. that someone had called the department earlier in the afternoon saying there needed to be extra security at the meeting because there might be violence.

Followers of Weslaco politics knew it would be a controversial evening.

After a hotly contested election, the City Commission called the special meeting before new members from the opposite slate were sworn in, looking to shake up the composition of the Economic Development Corp. for the second time in nine months.

Commissioners voted to decrease the number of board members from seven to five and to appoint Mayor Pro Tem John Cuellar, Commissioner Jerry Tafolla, Commissioner David Fox, former mayoral candidate Adrian Farias and teacher Rob Peterson.

Audience members, most of whom were supporters of minority Commissioner Olga Noriega, remained quiet through the votes associated with that decision but began calling out when other members of the commission tried to halt discussion on other items.

Cuellar, who has been presiding over meetings since Mayor Miguel Wise stepped down in September to run for 92nd state District Court judge, warned audience members once that they would be removed if they were disruptive.

That threat came to pass later in the meeting, amid opposing viewpoints about the role of Precinct 1 county politics in road projects. Audience members began laughing and a few shouted out in protest when commissioners did not allow Noriega to speak as Tafolla had.

Kelley then ordered all of the members from the room – including those who weren’t part of the group making noise and hadn’t spoken.

At that point, multiple people heard Commissioner-elect Fidel Peña shout at Kelley something to the effect of “We’ll remember this.” Kelley, Olivares and Cuellar later said they considered the comment to be a threat of political retaliation.

Peña did not return calls for comment Wednesday.

Kelley then posted an officer at the door to the chamber, saying “I figured they didn’t want anybody back in there” and the meeting proceeded. Commissioners voted on three more items, including approving $750,000 to improve Sugarcane Drive and miscellaneous budget amendments.

Noriega walked out of the meeting when the public was ousted.

OPEN MEETINGS ACT

The incident raised questions in Weslaco, as city meetings are required by law to be open to the public.

The Texas Open Meetings Act does not specifically address removing people, but the Texas Attorney General’s Office has said that a presiding officer “may ask that individual members of the public be removed if they are causing a disturbance.”

In this case, everyone but city employees was made to leave the chamber. In audio of the meeting, Kelley can be heard saying “Mr. Warren: everybody” to Charles and Chris Warren, who for years have attended every city meeting to sit quietly in the front and take notes.

“The mayor pro tem hit the gavel and told me, ‘Chief, I want you to clear the room,’” Kelley said, noting that he was following orders and believed they were legal, as well as the best way to tone down the tension without escalating it.

But the chief knew the decision would be questioned.

“When I got home, the first thing I did is get on the Internet and start looking at that Open Meetings Act,” he said.

Bill Aleshire, an Austin-based attorney specializing in Open Meetings Act issues and former 12-year Travis County Commissioners’ Court judge, said there could be reason for concern.

“Based on your description, I think anyone on the City Council who stayed in that meeting after they threw everybody out was violating the Open Meetings Act, because they were conducting a closed meeting at that point,” he said. “The only exception would be if everyone who was removed was arrested.

“You cannot just clear the room and go on and conduct public business. They could recess the meeting until order was restored. There’s a number of options. But the option of removing people who are not guilty of committing a crime of violating the meeting is a violation.”

Olivares said Wednesday that he had requested a written opinion from City Attorney Ramon Vela regarding whether any violation had occurred, but noted Vela was present during and after the incident.

Cuellar said via text message that he stood by his decision.

“There was an anonymous threat of violence that would occur at the City Commission meeting,” he said. “To protect the public, when the audience continued to be disruptive, I ordered the Chief to clear the room. The City Attorney did not object with continuing the meeting, which lasted approximately five minutes after the room was cleared.”

The threat made to the police department could not immediately be verified Wednesday evening, but city leaders said an audio recording of the call would be available through an open records request.