This morning, the city council got its first formal look at the just-completed redistricting map proposal, Plan 16d, presented by redistricting chair Ruth Morgan and vice chair Billy Ratcliff. And during her presentation, Morgan mentioned something rather interesting: During the final stages of the redistricting process, several private meetings between members of the Redistricting Commission took place. While it's not technically illegal for the commissioners to meet privately, to do so without disclosing to the commission and the public that they met at all, is, as Morgan put it when we called her just now, "contrary to our rules, regulations and practice."
Let's back up for a moment and lay out a timeline of exactly what happened. At their August 9 meeting, commissioners were asked to choose their top three map proposals from the 15 they had remaining before them. Twelve of them voted for Bill Betzen's map, Plan 3, while seven voted for commissioner Hollis Brashear's map, Plan 5, and seven voted for Plan 16, submitted by Ratcliff, Brooks Love and Domingo Garcia.
At that point, Morgan told Mayor Mike Rawlings this morning, "Members of the commission were invited individually to meet with one of the members of the commission who drafted the final plan." That final plan, if you recall from two sentences ago, was Plan 16, meaning that either commissioner Garcia, Love or Ratcliff was asking members of the commission to meet outside City Hall, off the record and away from the public and the press.
When we called Morgan just now, she confirmed to us that the person calling the private meetings was Domingo Garcia. We've called him for comment, but haven't heard back just yet (do keep an eye on the comments section for that, though). Morgan told the mayor and the council she was also invited to meet with Garcia, but turned him down, in order to preserve her neutrality.
The next time the commission took a preference vote was August 20. This time, their numbers had totally shifted: Ten commissioners now voted for Plan 16 as their first choice, while four voted for Plan 5, and just one voted for Plan 3.
It might seem like some seriously shady shit went down at those private meetings to change the numbers that much, right? But bear in mind that this second preference vote also happened following the public forum August 20, where members of the public overwhelmingly spoke in favor of Plan 16. Still, following the forum Bill Betzen told Unfair Park that the redistricting staff told him that they received hundreds of emails in support of his own plan.
Morgan told us she believes the public deserves to know that these private meetings were happening in order to understand if they changed the commissioners' minds about their map preferences.
"I think that when we've made a commitment to the public that this will be an open and transparent process, they had a right to expect that," she said. "It was the responsibility of the commissioners who met with others to try to negotiate, make compromises and try to find common ground with regard to boundaries -- which is perfectly all right -- but it was their responsibility to let the commission know those conversations took place."
Morgan stressed that she didn't conduct a formal investigation into these meetings. "I was called [to attend a private meeting]," she explained, "and I declined. Another one of the commissioners was called," said Morgan, who then identified that member as Donna Halstead. Halstead, Morgan told us, "sent an email as to why she was not meeting with [Garcia] and copied me on it. Her concern that she expressed was that if he met with as many as eight, that's considered a rolling quorum, which would of course be contrary to the Open Records Act."
When Morgan presented this information to the mayor, a man in the back row of the audience started booing softly and protesting, "That's unethical!"
Rawlings, however, had just a couple questions for Morgan. "You have no knowledge of anything that was done [at the private meetings] that would make you present this plan with reservations?" he asked her.
"I can't speak to that accurately," she responded. With that, Rawlings told the commission they'll have until next Friday at 5 p.m. to submit any changes or modifications they want made to the map. Once the council members settle on their final plan, which needs to happen by October 15 at the latest, the map will be sent to the Department of Justice for review.
So what, we asked Morgan this afternoon, does she think the city council should do with this information about the private meetings?
"I just think that they and the public have a right to know," she said. "Other than that, what they do with it is their judgment call. I had made a commitment that this as going to be run aboveboard and there wasn't going to be any backroom deals or smoke-filled rooms. I felt I had an obligation to let the public and the council and the mayor know that this activity did occur."
With her no-shenanigans policy so well-documented, we asked, is she frustrated that it seems like it wasn't followed?
"I think it's not frustration so much as disappointment," she said. "I think that's why the public is so upset with governance. This kind of activity is very disillusioning to the public when they know about it."
As we wrapped up our conversation, I let Morgan know that I would be calling Garcia next for his comment and an explanation as to why he thought these private meetings were necessary. "If he does have one," Morgan said, "I'd be very happy to hear it."