Con­verse coun­cil­woman’s law­suit chal­lenges city char­ter

San Antonio Express-News (Sunday) - - Metro - GIL­BERT GAR­CIA ggar­[email protected]­ @gil­gamesh470

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.”

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