in Houston, Texas
Members of HISD committee overseeing bonds told to re-apply as district overhauls committee
Tuesday, Aug 31, 2010, 06:40PM CST
By Lynn Walsh

A watchdog committee for the Houston Independent School District’s major building projects could be injected with new membership after sitting members were notified they must reapply for their positions and verify they have no personal or professional conflicts of interest.

The nine members of the Bond Oversight Committee were e-mailed the application, as well as a new charter for the committee, on Monday by HISD Chief Operating Officer Leo Bobadilla, who announced last month a plan to rid the committee of any entanglements. The committee reform comes after former Trustee Diana Dávila tried to get her husband appointed to the panel.

“A completed application provides a single process to know that (members have) reviewed the charter, have no conflicts and plan to continue to serve on the committee,” Bobadilla told committee members in e-mail correspondence obtained by Texas Watchdog.

According to the new charter, at least one member must have experience in engineering or building design, but none of the seats are reserved for specific community groups like the Houston Citizens Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Houston Partnership, which was the previous arrangement. The board oversees the district’s nearly $1 billion bond program.

The committee members are also barred from making decisions that would benefit themselves, their businesses or immediate family members. The charter puts in place a cooling-off period of one year between when a member’s service on the committee ends and when he and his company are eligible to bid on district construction project.

Tension between committee members and HISD as well as discord over the filling of open seats have kept the board in the news.

Last month, the Houston Chronicle reported that Dávila attempted to get her husband, Abel Dávila, on the committee last November. He is the former chair of the Houston Community College Board of Trustees and is at the center of a conflict of interest investigation there.

According to the article, HISD Superintendent Terry Grier ultimately denied the request, but approved Dávila’s second suggestion, Manuel Barrera Jr., who had been in charge of her campaign. In the last month, both Barrera and Dávila have stepped down from their positions.

HISD Board President Greg Meyers said he favors a review of the committee’s membership and possibly getting new members.

“We will be looking at them to see if there will be a conflict interest and want to make sure they are completely transparent,” he said in an interview with Texas Watchdog. “The active members who are in compliance --- meaning they have no conflict of interest on the personal or business side --- have the opportunity to stay on.”

Meyers said applications for the vacant positions will be available online.

“The best thing in the world would be to have people come in and serve,” Meyers said. “We want people to be involved.”

At least one member, former Houston City Council member Carroll Robinson, indicated he doesn’t intend to re-apply.

In an e-mail to Bobadilla, Robinson said:
“Does your request for current Bond Oversight Committee Members to file an application mean that our service has come to an end and is no longer needed?  If so, I am happy to have served and do not wish to apply to be considered for reappointment.”
Robinson spoke out in the Chronicle article, apparently frustrated that for an oversight board, the members were given little power.

"The expectation was you just shut up, listen and go home. That's never been my experience when I'm responsible for exercising some fiduciary responsibility," said Robinson, an associate professor at Texas Southern University.

According to Meyers, if a member chooses not to fill out the application the position will become vacant, and trustees will appoint a replacement based on Superintendent Terry Grier’s recommendation. The new charter does not have to be approved by HISD trustees, Bobadilla said in an e-mail to a district spokesman.

Committee members have until Sept. 10 to fill out the application, according to district officials. Those who are determined by HISD not to have any conflicts of interests “may continue to be on the Committee for the remainder of their term (not to exceed one year),” district spokesman Norm Uhl said via e-mail.

Unlike the old charter, the new charter does not name any professional groups as receiving guaranteed representation, but it does give broad guidance on community involvement, characterizing the committee makeup in this way:
“1. Members active in a business organization representing the business
community located in the District.
2. Members who are parents or guardians of a child enrolled in the District and also active in a parent-teacher organization.
3. Members of the community at-large.
4. At least one member with building design and/or construction experience.”
  • Terence Cheng, nominated by the Greater Houston Partnership
  • Edmund Gor, nominated by the Asian Chamber of Commerce
  • Chris Hudson, nominated by the American Institute of Architects, Houston Chapter
  • Mary Nesbitt, nominated at-large by Superintendent of Schools Terry Grier
  • Ber Pieper, committee chair, nominated by the Associated General Contractors, Houston
  • Carroll Robinson, nominated by the Houston Citizens Chamber of Commerce
  • Gary J. White, nominated at-large by Superintendent of Schools Terry Grier
HISD Trustee Mike Lunceford served as a member of the bond oversight committee prior to becoming a school board trustee.

Contact Lynn Walsh at 713-228-2850 or lynn@texaswatchdog.org. Follow news about the Houston Independent School District on Twitter, #HISD.
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