Appellate court: Former Donna school board violated Open Meetings Act

DONNA — An appellate court ruled in favor of a former Donna school district trustee who sued the district last year alleging a violation to the Texas Open Meetings Act.

The decision came Thursday evening, placing the district in a unique situation in which many board actions — including awarded contracts to employees and companies — may be voided.

“Because the court of appeals found that there was an open meetings act violation … there is a section on there that there is voidability of actions if you don’t have a quorum or if you have issues with any of the board members being qualified when they vote on an item,” said George Farah, school district attorney. “Those items are voidable.”

The decision is tied to a Feb. 9, 2016 board meeting in which the board majority at the time, which included trustees Alberto Sandoval, Nick Castillo and Tammy Flores, lured current Board President Efren Ceniceros and former trustee Ernesto Lugo into a meeting by including an item in the agenda calling for a vote on a special election to fill two vacant seats.

The seats in question were vacated after the arrest of former trustees Elpidio Yañez Jr. and Eloy Infante, who were convicted on bribery charges.

Ceniceros and Lugo were openly boycotting meetings in which the board majority sought to appoint two trustees and fire former Superintendent Jesus Reyna. It wasn’t until that item calling for a vote on a proposed election was included that they finally attended, allowing for quorum. But when trustees called for a vote on this item, Castillo surprisingly called on amending it and instead called for the appointment of David de los Rios and Dennis Ramirez.

Ceniceros and Lugo filed a lawsuit on Feb. 12, 2016 stating this was a violation considering any item discussed during a board meeting and voted on has to be clearly specified and posted on the agenda 72 hours in advance. The two sought a temporary restraining order to keep the appointed trustees from being sworn in until it was decided whether this was a legal move.

But Hidalgo County Judge Luis Singleterry denied the TRO and later dismissed the lawsuit.

Lugo then sought the state appeal, which took more than a year to come back in his favor.

The 13th Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court judgment should be reversed and the course remanded to the trial court, the appeals judgement reads.

The two appointed trustees served up until the November 2016 elections, when all running incumbents were voted off the board. But Farah explained this ruling doesn’t only allow the current board to revisit and change decisions made by the board with the two trustees appointed, but it would also allow any citizen who isn’t happy with those decisions to question them.

“Somebody could attack the decision and file a lawsuit with the court saying, ‘We want the court to void this because these board members were not authorized to even vote on these decisions,’” Farah said. “Any citizen has the right now to go and look at any actions that were taken and essentially file lawsuit.”

Some of the decisions could also be ratified by the board, he said. Still, it’s a unique situation in which the district will have several options as to how to proceed. For now, he will bring the board up-to-date during a meeting Tuesday evening, with decisions to follow.

“We have to go back and look at every single decision that was made and analyze which decisions were made with those two board members,” he said. “That’s really step one right there.”

One of these decisions includes the contract of the district’s current superintendent, Fernando Castillo, who first served as interim superintendent before getting a five-year contract for $210,000 annually plus benefits, approved by the board on August 2016.

This contract was approved with a unanimous vote by the board majority, including Sandoval, Castillo, Flores and De Los Rios, and even at that time Ceniceros and Lugo decided not to attend.

Lugo said even as this decision took time, it was worth it not only to correct the wrong of that night’s appointment but to use this case as an example for those who try to find a loophole in the law.

“There’s great significance in this ruling because what it does is that it sets a tone for the future, for those who try to pull a fast one on somebody,” Lugo said. “Now there’s precedence, there’s law that says you can’t misinform the public. You can’t violate the open meetings act and get away with it.”