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As mayor pro tem faces criminal charges, Temple council calls special meeting

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What, if anything, will the Temple City Council do at a Monday special called meeting? Will Mayor Pro Tem Judy Morales resign after earlier this week being charged with destruction, removal or alteration of public information? How might residents react as the Morales controversy plays out and what impact might that reaction have in an ongoing recall petition effort seeking “total recall” of Mayor Danny Dunn, Morales and the three remaining council members – Tim Davis, Perry Cloud and Russell Schneider?

Morales is facing a misdemeanor charge although public record destruction cases can be charged as felonies. Per Bell County Attorney Jim Nichols, Morales’ conduct was reviewed for any possible violations of felony offenses by Calhoun County Assistant District Attorney Dain Whitworth, the special prosecutor appointed, and that prosecution of the current charge is “the proper charge that fit the facts and intent on the part of Ms. Morales.”

In a release, Nichols also said “there is convincing evidence that there was a violation of campaign or abuse of office statutes” but that “as this conduct occurred in 2011 under Texas law, prosecution of this conduct is barred by the statute of limitations.”

Monday’s meeting agenda indicates the council’s plan to go into an executive session to discuss the charge Morales faces as well as its impact on her council service.

“As always, any final decision or action will be decided by the mayor and other Council members; however, the Council will seek legal advice from the city attorney regarding this situation,” Dunn said in an email to the Temple Daily Telegram on Wednesday.

A statement from Dunn issued last week included:

And, while I cannot speak for any other councilmember, I have asked Ms. Morales to resign from her office no fewer than four times, if she believes she is guilty of the allegations against her. The last time I asked her to resign she responded that she would resign if charges are brought against her.

Whether Morales acknowledges and/or plans to honor this statement is unknown.

Morales’ status in light of the criminal charges is but one piece of the current city controversy. Her past and continued service remains another as in 2011 she was ineligible to run for office due to a city charter “conflict of interest” clause disallowing council members’ employment “paid out of public funds.” Until early October 2013, Morales worked for Bell County as Director of Social Services at the county-managed HELP (Health, Education, Leadership, Progress) Center.

Upon discovery of this clause being made public in September, Morales retired from the county. When allegations surfaced soon thereafter that she violated county employee policies and/or state election laws by utilizing county employees and resources during her 2011 city council campaign, a plan to keep Morales in the HELP Center position as a consultant was put on hold.

In November, Morales took a leave of absence from the council, but returned several weeks ago – an act which increasingly appears to have been against her fellow council members’ wishes. With her term set to expire in May, Morales at the same time filed for re-election.

Morales as a beneficiary of favoritism or recipient of special treatment is an ongoing theme within this controversy.

This first audio clip reveals both how Bell County Judge Jon Burrows reportedly alerted Morales to the public information act request seeking email from the time frame of her 2011 campaign as well as the mayor pro tem’s reaction. The second clip suggests Morales’ determination to obstruct the public information for which she now faces criminal charges of destroying, removing and/or altering.

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For some residents, Morales’ close relationships with both city and county officials as well as prominent community members has created credibility issues.

Local discussions continue questioning the filing of Morales’ charges at the misdemeanor rather than felony level. Similarly, the statute of limitation “barring” prosecution of “convincing evidence that there was a violation of campaign or abuse of office statutes” creates other questions of favoritism. The alleged acts, after all, were committed as she was a county employee (see Section 39.02(2) and (2)(c) and Chapter 12, Art. 12.01.(2)(B)).

An informed public knows laws crafted by lawyers are subject to interpretation – usually by lawyers – with outcomes often situationally customized once again bringing credibility into play.

And on the subject of interpretation, a body of thought exists that Morales should have resigned from the council upon the discovery of her ineligibility. Hasty retirement from the county didn’t resolve the fact that she should not have been elected nor served for nearly 2 and 1/2 years.

Section 4.9 of the charter says “Any knowing or wilful violation of this section shall constitute malfeasance in office, and any elected or appointed official, or any employee of the City, guilty thereof shall thereby forfeit his office or position.” Section 4.14 tasks the city council “to be judge of its own members” with regard to election and qualifications.

Was no one aware of what the charter says? Despite council claims of not being “judge and jury,” the charter does to a certain degree clearly task Temple’s body of elected officials as “judge of its own members.” And what about other city administrative personnel? A city manager whose job performance merits a council-approved, taxpayer-funded $150,000 retention bonus? The city secretary who works with candidates, election personnel and the process to theoretically ensure free and fair elections? Accountability in all these and other areas is another topic of public discourse.

Schneider, the longest-serving member with an initial 2004 election, currently faces his own city charter violation allegations. His road construction company does work for the city, an issue that also was contentious between he and former councilmember Tony Jeter dating back to 2009. With regard to Morales’ initial eligibility, he said this Wednesday to the Telegram:

“I didn’t really know Judy was a county employee until it was brought to our attention at a charter meeting. I always thought she worked for a public agency. As soon as it came up, I demanded that she not attend meetings until it was worked out,” Schneider said.

In response, Mari Paul, Morales’ former Bell County HELP Center employee who ultimately filed a complaint against her supervisor after being asked to assist in the destruction of non-county related files on county computers, offered this response:

Every year the HELP Center goes before the city council and we seek operating costs for the HELP Center in excess of $50,000 dollars!! Every year we are granted those funds. Judy for years gave the presentation herself! It’s all public record.

For Schneider to deny knowing about her affiliation with the county is asinine!

The Temple HELP Center receives funds from the city to keep the doors open.

The HELP Center itself operates out of a city building!

However the Morales controversies end, the Temple City Charter appears destined for change.

Paul is also organizer of the effort to recall the Temple city council members. With this task, she has to collect separate groupings of signatures for Dunn who was elected at large and the four members each elected from a separate district. The charter says:

Before the question of recall of such officers shall be submitted to the registered voters of the City, a petition demanding such question to be so submitted shall first be filed with the City Secretary, which said petition shall be signed by at least thirty per cent of the registered voters of the City, in the case of the at large Councilmember, or thirty per cent of the registered voters in the single member district, in the case of a Councilmember elected from or appointed to represent a single member district, to be determined by the latest voter registration list of the City.

With Dunn elected at large, recall petitions will need 11,000 eligible signatures. That is an extremely high threshold of signatures to obtain – especially considering that voter turnout is often a fraction of that number.

Add, however, to the challenge and dysfunction of this situation, while Paul is currently in a 30-day window for collecting signatures, neither the city nor county can give her voter numbers broken down for each single member district.

City of Temple officials are looking to Bell County for the number. The Bell County elections department says it has been “working with city personnel since last fall to update Temple’s elections infrastructure, only to run into repeated problems.

With that, while not only can Paul not be given data to calculate her target number of signatures, but without a voter breakdown by district, it would seem the city secretary cannot credibly certify signatures within the 20 days as also prescribed by law.

Monday’s meeting is ahead of a regular Thursday city council meeting. Paul will continue collecting signatures into early April. The controversy is far from over.

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