In the Houston school board’s debate over a new ethics policy, it’s a case of young turks bent on ethics reform versus veterans who want no additional ethical rules placed on them.
Marshall on Thursday night attacked fellow trustees Anna Eastman, Juliet Stipeche and Mike Lunceford, all of whom have spoken out in favor of ethics reform, as “the youngest, most inexperienced members” of the school board, who he said helped draft an ethics policy to address “assumptions that are these mythical situations that don't exist.”
His strenuous objections to the new language -- and his assertion that a new ethics policy is not needed at all -- led the school board to delay a vote on an already-weakened ethics policy revision last night.
The longest-tenured board member of the Houston Independent School District, first elected in 1997, Marshall is among the school board members who has been accused of unethical conduct. He’s been accused in civil court filings of accepting bribes and kickbacks from HISD contractors. He has not been charged with any crime.
But the retired school administrator says the accusations against him are false.
“This board has been ethical, and I am troubled why this stuff keeps coming up,” he said.
Marshall said last night he had never witnessed or heard of a trustee influencing a contract award with a vendor, negotiating a contract or pressuring a district official about a contract.
However, Marshall himself has admitted previously he set up a meeting between himself, Superintendent Terry Grier, district Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett and Dr. Kenneth Wells, a local doctor with whom Marshall had traveled to Costa Rica on a trip arranged by an HISD vendor. HISD then began the process of contracting with Wells to hire him as a consultant on health care issues.
HISD officials were about to award a $640,000 no-bid contract to Wells, despite not knowing precisely what Wells was going to do for the district.
Due in part to questions about the deal raised by Texas Watchdog, HISD officials have put the negotiations on hold.
“Marshall is calling the kettle black,” said Andy Chan, 46, a parent of two children who attend HISD schools. “There has to be a stronger ethics policy. I don’t believe there should be any sort of contact between board members and vendors.”
Chan, who lives in Lunceford’s HISD district, said trustees shouldn’t be able to influence contracts so their friends may obtain them.
“There should be multiple and blind bids,” Chan said. “The fact that cronyism continues to go on, whether it’s speculation or founded truth, you’ve got to wonder how Marshall and Harris get contracts done.”
But Marshall may have a point about the difference between his views and those of a younger generation: Eastman and Lunceford were first elected to the school board just two years ago; Stipeche was elected last year to fill a vacant seat and re-elected to a full four-year term last month. They are the three most recently minted HISD school board members.
Allied with the younger set is the school board’s most senior member, Trustee Carol Mims Galloway, who joined with Eastman Thursday night in voting against delaying the ethics policy decision. But Galloway, who first served on the Houston ISD board from 1991-98, is giving up her seat at the end of the year and retiring from a long career in public service.
Galloway sided with Lunceford, Eastman and Stipeche and implored Marshall “to just pass it.”
During her last-ever school board meeting, Galloway told Marshall that approving the policy would allow HISD to have something in place just in case.
“If it were to happen, then the administration has protection or maybe won’t feel intimidated,” she said. “Let’s just relax and pass the policy and move on.”
Six board members voted to table the ethics policy decision. Board President Paula Harris, who was elected to the board in 2007, was absent.
Harris also has been a controversial figure. She voted multiple times on district contracts with businesses run by a close friend. She also asked the district’s former procurement director to arrange a meeting with two vendors, records show.
Lunceford reminded Marshall that Harris asked Lunceford and some of his colleagues to explore a new board ethics policy.
“We, as trustees, need to discuss it openly and publicly,” Lunceford said.
But Marshall described the efforts to revise the ethics policy as a “so-called committee that's become a monitoring system.”
In response to Marshall’s criticism of the policy language, Eastman said that the intent was to remove even the implication of pressure that the presence of a board member could bring to a meeting.
“One of the goals of this policy is to make sure that we, as trustees, would not bring in specific people that we had personal relationships with to meetings,” Eastman said.
The draft ethics policy board members had been scheduled to vote on last night already had no sanctions to enforce it.
And two changes made to it during the last week, which at least four trustees did not know about, further crippled its effectiveness.
School trustees met twice to write a new, stronger board ethics code.
But the revised policy presented to the board last night:
- Dropped a proposed ban on trustees having direct communication "between district administration and current or potential vendors.” It would merely ban trustees from attending meetings with vendors and administrators; and,
- Deleted a phrase stating board members must avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest “in the eyes of the general public.
UPDATE: This story was most recently updated at 5:30 p.m. Saturday to add additional comments from Carol Galloway.
Contact Mike Cronin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.
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