Killeen’s leaders need to take a closer look at how they’re governing.
In the space of just a few hours last week, a city council member’s key vote was negated by a technical problem on a Zoom conference, a council member who has consistently opposed a proposed housing development was named president of the board overseeing the project; and the council member who nominated the board president put his own name in nomination for the board vice president’s position.
When taken together, the developments reflect a lack of oversight, planning and governing standards.
In the first instance, the council was considering bringing back for discussion a proposed city camera surveillance system. Members were split on the merits of the nearly $1 million system, with three members voting to end discussion and two voting to bring the subject back at a future meeting.
However, Mayor Pro Tem Shirley Fleming, who had been dealing with technical issues with her remote Zoom teleconference connection, was unable to cast her vote. As a result, discussion of the cameras came to an end.
Fleming later said she would have voted to continue the discussion, which would have resulted in a 3-3 tie, putting Mayor Jose Segarra in position to cast the tie-breaking vote.
Whether the camera project is a worthwhile expenditure in a secondary issue here. What is important is that the discussion was ended by a member’s inability to cast a vote.
What is troubling is that this is not the first time it has happened.
In early December, then-Councilman Jim Kilpatrick was unable to cast a vote remotely during a discussion on the city’s Future Land Use Map. And Fleming noted last week that she has endured other technical problems herself in previous meetings.
Killeen — along with hundreds of other municipalities and school districts across Texas — has been conducting meetings with at least some of the members participating remotely by phone or teleconference since Gov. Greg Abbott authorized the practice last spring in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Certainly, the city has had ample time to establish some guidelines and fall-back procedures to deal with temporary signal disruptions and other technical problems.
But on Tuesday, it was left up to Councilman Steve Harris to call Fleming on his cellphone in order to solicit her vote on another council agenda item — naming a representative to the Bell County Tax Appraisal District board. Harris said he received a text message from someone, asking him to include Fleming in the vote.
Let’s stop here and count all the red flags raised by this single incident.
First of all, if Fleming was no longer on the Zoom call at the time of the vote, the meeting should have been paused, and the mayor — who is charged with running council meetings — should have contacted Fleming by phone, notified her of the pending vote and asked her if she wanted to participate.
Secondly, it’s not Harris’s responsibility to contact Fleming about a vote on an agenda item, and whoever prompted him to do so via text message was unduly influencing the outcome of the council’s decision.
Finally, a vote in response to a phone call from a council member should not be accepted protocol. State law requires the mayor or meeting chair to be in contact with whomever is voting — which was eventually achieved last week. But any contact in the future should be strictly between the mayor and the council member calling in — with proper safeguards to verify that the actual council member is the one casting a vote by phone.
The whole incident makes it appear as if the council and mayor are just making up the rules as they go along — and that’s not how we expect our elected representatives to comport themselves.
Going forward, the council needs to adopt and abide by some specific procedures for remote participation in meetings.
For one thing, council members should have to check in at the beginning of the meeting and inform the mayor if they intend to participate in the entire event. At that time, each council member should be given a unique code number that would identify them in the event they need to cast a vote by phone.
Also, the mayor should have the ability to pause the meeting and contact members by phone whenever their Zoom connection is broken, and to alert them to upcoming votes on agenda items.
Finally, if a vote is taken and one or more members’ votes are not recorded, the mayor should contact the members whose votes failed to register and obtain their vote verbally.
This all sounds time consuming and a bit of a hassle — especially for the mayor — but it’s important to give every council member the opportunity to register a vote, both for themselves and for the constituents they represent.
It’s logical to ask why Harris contacted Fleming to get her vote on the board appointment, but he didn’t call her regarding the vote on the camera system earlier in the meeting. More than likely, he may not have known she couldn’t register her vote. But it should have been the mayor’s responsibility to make sure she could.
The mayor has already proposed upgrading council members’ internet speed, at city expense, in an attempt to improve their connectivity.
For her part, Fleming said that in the future, she will participate in Zoom conferences from a computer in another room at City Hall, rather than from home — which might address her frequent internet issues.
Regarding the appointments to newly created Public Facility Corporation board of directors, the questions go beyond technology issues, but they still involve questionable judgment and protocol.
The board, which consists of the City Council members and the mayor, is tasked with overseeing the facilitation of a proposed $51 million multifamily housing project in north Killeen.
The project has drawn considerable controversy because of its 75-year, tax-exempt lease with the city, and some council members — including Mellisa Brown — have expressed reservations about various aspects of the project.
It’s Brown’s right to express her concerns, and she has consistently voted against moving the project forward.
So it was stunning on Tuesday when the new PFC board elected Brown as its president — by a unanimous vote.
And the post is hardly insignificant. In addition to presiding over the board meetings, the president “shall be in general charge of the properties and affairs of the Corporation, and execute all contracts, conveyances, franchises, deeds, assignments, mortgages, leases, notes and other instruments in the name of the Corporation,” as stated in the bylaws.
Almost as surprising was Councilman Steve Harris’s nomination of himself for the vice president’s post.
The question isn’t whether Harris is qualified to assume the role. It’s how he got there.
By most accepted meeting protocols, it’s highly unusual for someone to put his or her own name in nomination for a leadership post.
But once again, the board’s vote to elect Harris was unanimous.
Voting procedures, meeting protocols and board officer elections may seem like small items in the grand scheme of things in a municipal government.
But if our elected officials don’t effectively address the finer points of governing, how can we have confidence that they are paying attention to the bigger tasks before them?
It’s certainly a question worth asking.