Alamo Trust to hold open meetings in wake of transparency concerns

By Scott Huddleston
San Antonio Express-News
Originally published Jan. 15, 2018

A nonprofit board overseeing the Alamo’s day-to-day operations will open its meetings to the public this year.

But one state senator says state officials and philanthropists in charge of the historic mission and battle site and a far-reaching plan to improve it should do more to provide a level of openness befitting the Texas shrine.

“The public just has an inherent right to know how their tax dollars are being spent. And we’re now talking about the Alamo, which is a big deal,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, one of several Senate Finance Committee members who directed Land Commissioner George P. Bush at a Dec. 5 hearing to simplify the management structure and access to records regarding the Alamo and long-term master plan.

Board members of the nonprofit Alamo Endowment and subsidiary Alamo Trust which manages daily operations, approved a resolution Dec. 20 amending the trust’s bylaws to declare that trust board meetings “shall be open to the public.” The board still can consult lawyers or discuss personnel matters in a closed session.

Notices of board meetings will be posted at least two days in advance, according to the resolution. It also states that all books and records of the trust “shall be subject to the Texas Public Information Act.”

Doug McDonald, Alamo CEO, said the trust agreed that it must adhere to the information act because it uses state funds, including Alamo gift shop revenues, to run the site in coordination with the Texas General Land Office. The Texas attorney general’s office had issued a ruling in May that the trust’s board minutes were subject to disclosure under the act, as it pertained to information maintained by the Land Office.

The decision to open board meetings to the public was made voluntarily to assure everyone that there is nothing to hide.

“We didn’t believe we’re required by law to do it,” McDonald said. “We want to open the meetings up.”

Watson, D-Austin, said the changes help but do not go far enough. The Texas Open Meetings Act requires meeting notices be posted 72 hours in advance.

“If you’re going to open the meetings, why not follow the letter of the law?” asked Watson, who served as mayor of Austin from 1997 to 2001.

The changes follow concerns from the public and the media about clarity and transparency of the endowment, chaired by Bush, and its two subsidiaries, including the trust, which is chaired by Houston businessman Welcome Wilson. The other subsidiary, the Remember the Alamo Foundation, the endowment’s fundraising arm, is chaired by local developer Gene Powell.

Meeting notices and agendas will be posted at thealamo.org and will include a citizen-input portion, McDonald said. The meetings have typically been held every three to four months in San Antonio.

Also this year, Texans can participate in a statewide outreach and design development phase of the Alamo master plan led by PGAV Destinations of St. Louis, the Land Office said. Land Office officials have mentioned the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site near Houston and National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg among sites overseen by state agencies, with nonprofits giving fundraising and management support.

But the Senate finance panel told Bush that the $450 million master plan project, a public-private endeavor to preserve the Alamo’s historic structures, expand pedestrian access and add a major museum, requires proactive openness. Along with $25 million committed to the project by the Legislature in 2015 and $75 million last year, the city of San Antonio has allocated $38 million, with the endowment expected to privately raise at least $200 million.

The Land Office inherited a public-private management structure at the Alamo when the Legislature assigned oversight to the state agency, replacing the Daughters of the Republic of Texas as custodians in 2011. Now, with the master plan putting the Alamo under scrutiny, some are suggesting that the Alamo’s roughly 100 employees be added to the state payroll, to avoid confusion about public accountability.

Jerry Patterson, a former land commissioner running against Bush in the March 6 GOP primary, believes that Alamo employees now reporting to the Alamo Trust should become Land Office staff. There has not been a formal study of the costs, including salary and benefits adjustments, to transition Alamo staff to state employee status. But because Alamo employees largely are paid from funds generated by the gift shop, Patterson believes that there could be a simple “payroll swap” at little additional cost.

Some have said Alamo employees are underpaid, compared with state or contract park or museum workers. The problem, Watson said, is that the Alamo’s nonprofit management of staff makes it hard to do a cost analysis.

He believes that consolidation of the three nonprofits and full access to records and meetings would mitigate perceptions of a “shadow government” running the Alamo and master plan process. Watson and other senators at the Dec. 5 hearing were further perplexed by a master plan review process involving inter-agency panels with appointees from the Land Office, the city and the Alamo Endowment holding closed meetings.

“To a great degree, a hole has been dug,” Watson said. “The way it’s been set up has caused a loss of trust.”