By Anthony Scott
Killeen Daily Herald
It's called the Committee of 12 - C12 for short. It's a group of influential people who meet regularly and discuss their views of the future of Killeen.
Sometimes labeled a secret society by politicians past and present, C12 has likely been around Killeen for several decades.
A current council member who did not want to be identified said the group does more than discuss business, using its power to influence the decisions of public policy-makers on how they spend tax dollars. The current council member contends the group has had private meetings with multiple council members present at once.
"They (council members) do get together, so if they're getting together and functioning - or having meetings - what is that?" the council member said. "More than three of us? What is that? You know the answer."
The answer is a quorum: When more than three council members are present.
If that is the case, such get-togethers would be illegal.
Bill Aleshire, a volunteer attorney with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said a quorum present at a meeting without giving notice of an open meeting where public business is discussed is a potential civil and criminal violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act. Punishment for this
misdemeanor offense can include one to six months in jail, a $100 to $500 fine or a combination of the two.
"I am just flabbergasted that in this day and time that anyone who serves on a governmental body, who has gone through the mandatory training for compliance with open meetings act, would so blatantly violate it," Aleshire said. "I'm amazed. The risks that you're taking are profound, let alone betraying the public interest in having secret discussion. And I don't care who the interest group is, whether they're left or right, Democrats or Republicans, good guys or bad guys, it doesn't make any difference."
Mayor Tim Hancock, a C12 member, said it's a group of business people who meet regularly to discuss business. When asked about the C12 meeting with council quorums, Hancock denied knowing about any such meetings taking place. He maintained the committee consisted of business people who were meeting to discuss business.
The current councilman who spoke out was also careful to point out there is a new and old C12, with an offshoot of the group occurring in the last several years.
Shedding light on the past
By now, the group may be more or less than 12 members as they have come and gone, some possibly a result of their political position.
Former Mayor Raul Villaronga said that in the early '90s, his position as mayor garnered him a seat eventually. When his term was up, however, so was his membership, he said.
Villaronga said typically, mayors are asked to join after their term is up, but he was not.
"What they ended up doing is they would get the elected officials, the mayor in particular," Villaronga said. "Actually the mayor stepped down because of tenure or what have you, normally the mayor was added to the committee. That was not the case with me. They didn't want me."
A variety of sources with knowledge of the city, some current and former politicians, have said C12 membership has included retired generals, bankers, real estate players and public officials. People talk generally about the group, but there is still a culture of secrecy and a hush-hush approach that surrounds the committee when it is brought up, along with conflicting stories.
Villaronga said he disagreed with the committee on various levels.
"They obviously didn't want to have people in there that didn't see eye to eye with them," Villaronga said. "But you know, I found it to be quite useful in getting different opinions."
Villaronga said the group had more than 12 members when he took part. He said C12 would hold votes, keep a regular schedule and keep minutes.
"I remember when I first got in there they said, 'we want you to do this' and I said 'whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. I was elected by the public,'" he said. "'I wasn't elected by you guys. As a matter of fact, most of you did not support me. So, I'm going to do what is good for the community.' It took a long while to get quote 'invited' to join."
Villaronga said he wasn't sure how long the group has been around. Former Councilman Dick Young said he remembered first hearing about the group as a child.
"I'm 56, and I've heard about it since I was a kid growing up in the city of Killeen," Young said.
Young added he was never invited into the committee's inner sanctum, but he was well aware of its existence.
"I'm not going to sit here and say everything is bad. I don't know," he said. "I just don't know that there needs to be a secret society in Killeen."
Councilman Ernest Wilkerson said while he doesn't know who each member is, he knows about the group.
"My biggest thing is the city council does what it has to do and sets the policy of the city," he said. "I know the council (committee) of 12 is out there. I don't know what they do. I know they claim they have control of the city, but I don't know what they do."
Suggesting the group's notoriety was something comparable to folklore, Wilkerson said rumors have always persisted about the C12.
Aleshire said private discussions concerning public business remind him of an opinion from Dan Morales, a former Texas Attorney General:
"When government decisions are made, it's a result of the meetings of the minds, of the people who have the power to make those decisions and that it is not just the final decision that the public gets to see," he said. "They get to see the process by which that meeting of the minds occurred."
Aleshire said the concept is similar to a kitchen at a restaurant, where a resident is a customer being served a meal.
"They don't just sit down at the table and the government officials put a plate down in front of them and say here, eat this," he said. "They get to come into the kitchen. They get to see the recipes. They get to see all the ingredients that went into it. They get to watch it sit there and stew."
Opening up the public process is the entire point of the open meetings act, he said.
"It doesn't let them have secret deliberations," he said. "And between the open meetings act and the public information act, the legislature has intended to see these governmental bodies held accountable by the public that puts them there and pays their bills."
Contact Anthony Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7568. Follow him on Twitter at KDHcity.