Converse councilwoman’s lawsuit challenges city charter
Deborah James is at war with the Converse city government.
This is most inconvenient for James because she happens to be a member of the Converse City Council.
Two weeks ago, James filed a lawsuit in Bexar County District Court challenging the constitutionality of a provision of the Converse City Charter that James believes her colleagues want to use to throw her off the council.
It wouldn’t be the first time the council wielded the charter as a weapon against James.
On June 5, the council voted to dismiss James from her position because of repeated meeting absences that she attributed to a serious heart ailment. The Converse City Charter stipulates that council members forfeit their office if they “fail to attend three consecutive regular council meetings without being excused by the majority vote of the City Council.”
James, 62, missed seven consecutive meetings, but insists that she notified Mayor Al Suarez and City Manager Le Ann Piatt that she couldn’t return to the dais until she was cleared by her cardiologist. She believes her absences should have been excused.
Suarez and Piatt did not respond to interview requests for this column.
After being forced out, James ran again for City Council in November and handily defeated Nancy Droneburg, with 60 percent of the vote.
On Nov. 15, the day be- fore James was scheduled to be sworn in for a new term, the city released the agenda for its Nov. 20 council meeting. The agenda indicated that there would be discussions — in both executive and public session — about how James had violated the City Charter with her behavior during a Feb. 20 meeting, the last one she attended before being hospitalized.
At that meeting, James unsuccessfully argued against the passage of an interlocal agreement with Bexar County to have the county handle 911 dispatch services for Converse. In making her argument, she clashed with Police Chief Fidel Villegas.
James’ council opponents view her actions at that meeting as a violation of the City Charter’s “Interference with Administration” clause. That provision states that council members, unless in the process of an investigation or inquiry, should deal with city officers and employees “solely through the city manager” and should not give orders to those city employees.
James insists that she gave no orders to Villegas at that meeting.
“I have nothing to hide from the citizens. I did no wrong,” James said. “All I did was speak my mind about the 911 and the chief came at me.
“I’m a Cajun. Cajun people — coon-asses, excuse my expression, that’s what I am — talk with their hands. So I’m always expressing words with hands. They said I was inappropriate.”
Villegas declined to comment on James.
James’ court pleading contends that the “Interference with Administration” clause of the City Charter violates the 1st and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, “in that it is overbroad, void for vagueness, and that it establishes an impermissible prior restraint on free speech.”
Lynette Boggs-Perez, James’ attorney, added: “If you have a department head who is overly sensitive or thin-skinned, you can’t engage. Can she not communicate if she disagrees? Where do you draw these lines?
“Because the prohibited conduct is not defined, it can be used as a tool to attack your political enemies. And that’s what we have here.”
It’s obvious that Suarez and his council allies regard James as a disruptive force, a loose cannon who is impairing Converse’s development at a time of major activity for the Northeast Bexar County town, located near the intersection of I-35 North and Loop 1604.
In early 2017, Converse and San Antonio joined forces on a complex annexation deal that will, over the course of 17 years, add more than 15 square miles to Converse and is projected to triple its current population of approximately 22,000.
James chooses to believe that Suarez is seeking political vengeance over her two (2015 and 2017) failed campaigns against him.
James’ current legal battle is merely the punctuation mark on what has been an agonizing year for her.
In addition to her health problems, she has grappled with the September shooting death of her 24-year-old grandson, Isiah Roper. Roper’s girlfriend, Enederia Flowers, allegedly instructed her ex-boyfriend, James Johnson, to shoot Roper after she and Roper got into an argument.
James breaks down while talking about her grandson and argues that his life could have been saved if he’d received medical attention a few minutes earlier; she sees his death as confirmation that she was right on the 911 dispatch issue.
All of this adds up to a degree of bitterness that probably can’t be resolved. James is an exile on the council dais and she’s refusing to go quietly.
“It’s a witch hunt,” she said. “They’re trying to kick me out because I’ve run against the mayor, and he doesn’t like a strong woman who speaks her mind.”