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$100,000 targeted to lobby legislators, educate public on proposed switch to A&M System

By Sonny Long
March 15, 2011 at 9 p.m.
Updated March 14, 2011 at 10:15 p.m.


A plan will soon be in place to use $100,000 to woo legislators and educate the public about a proposed change from the University of Houston-Victoria to the Texas A&M System.

Dale Fowler, president of the Victoria Economic Development Corp., addressed both the Victoria Sales Tax Development board of directors and the Victoria City Council on Tuesday about the need for the funds.

Last month, both bodies agreed to add $100,000 to the economic development office's budget. The reason was discussed in executive session and not disclosed publicly.

THE NEED

With House Bill 2556 proposed by Rep. Geanie Morrison, the need for the funds was made public.

"We will use these additional funds to hire consultants necessary to best position us as a community to have a successful outcome on this bill," Fowler said to both groups.

Fowler said one of the consultants likely to be hired would be Mike Sizemore of Sizemore Media of Victoria.

"There may be the need to hire additional consultants to inform the Legislature," he said. "Whether it's lobbyists or governmental relations people, we may need to hire some of these folks to make sure that Legislature understands the virtue of this change from one system to the other. After all, it becomes their decision as to whether this happens or doesn't happen."

"We feel like it's too significant a project to sit back and hope they get the right information," Fowler emphasized. "This is a community-changing opportunity, and it's going to take the community to get it done."

Councilman Paul Polasek acknowledged the need for professional assistance, especially within the timeframe needed before the Texas Legislature ends its session in about 10 weeks.

"We can call it lobbying, consulting whatever we want to call it, but we need people those legislators trust, will make an appointment with and listen to the fact that Victoria is strongly interested in this," said Polasek.

City attorney Thomas Gwosdz said the hiring of lobbyists was legal.

"I looked into whether there was any prohibition lobbying the state government, and there is none," he said. "Several years ago, the Legislature's ethics committee specifically looked at the question whether or not local governments should be permitted to lobby the state legislature or whether that would be a conflict of interest.

"Their ethics committee concluded that it is in the local governments' best interest to be able to lobby the Legislature because that is the way for the local government to best represent their own constituents' best interests," said the city attorney.

NOT UNANIMOUS

The city council voted 5-1 to ratify the sales tax board's unanimous recommendation to again approve the funds for the economic development corporation's efforts.

Councilman Gabriel Soliz was the lone dissenter. Councilman David Hagan was absent

"I am speaking in opposition to it because the funds being allocated to it we need for infrastructure projects," Soliz said.

Soliz said he was also uncomfortable about whether the funds were allowed under the guidelines for economic development projects.

"There is also some question in the public about whether or not we did this in full disclosure and full transparency. The way we went about it, I am uncomfortable with," he said.

Others also spoke against the funding and the manner in which it was done. No public money was spent before Tuesday's vote, Fowler said.

Dale Zuck, who owns a Victoria insurance agency, addressed the council, quizzing members on whether previous discussions about the $100,000 violated the open meetings act.

He also asked, "Did the council commit fraud on the people of Victoria in indicating you were going to be spending money on an economic development project when actually it is for lobbying the move from the University of Houston to another system?"

Another resident with questions is business owner Jeff Williams.

"My biggest concern is the way it has taken place as some secret project," Williams said in a telephone interview. "Deeming it as economic development when it's higher education shouldn't make it secretive. It bothers me that taxpayer money is being spent behind closed doors. I also don't think it's appropriate to hire a lobbyist to get rid of a college."

PUBLIC SUPPORT

Several other members of the pubic spoke in favor of the change to the A&M System.

Jeff Bauknight, a member of the Crossroads Commission on Education, talked about projections for growth that both the commission and representatives from the UH System had agreed upon.

"We are definitely out of space," he said. "We approached the UH System and tried to solve this problem together. But they have different priorities and laudable goals. We don't quite fit into their goals."

"We tried to find suitable partners and thought A&M was the best fit," Bauknight continued. "We sit in a geographically advantageous area to grow this university. It can happen."

"It's about the Closing the Gap initiative that the state of Texas has put forth to get more people into higher education. We are in a prime position to do that," he said.

"I support this switch," Bauknight concluded. "I think it's the right thing for the community. It's the right thing for the region. It's the right thing for the students."

Councilwoman Denise Rangel summed up the general sentiment of the majority of the council and the public that addressed the council.

"The bottom line is there is great potential in A&M coming to Victoria," Rangel said.

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