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UHV suspends chamber membership

By Gabe Semenza
March 31, 2011 at 8:05 p.m.
Updated March 30, 2011 at 10:31 p.m.


QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BILL?

Contact Advocate Public Service Editor Gabe Semenza at gsemenza@vicad.com or 361-580-6519.

The University of Houston-Victoria's interim president asked two Victoria agencies to temporarily suspend the school's paid membership to both.

Don Smith, the interim university president, said UHV cannot, at least for now, remain a member of the Victoria Economic Development Corp. and Victoria Chamber of Commerce.

"The now public advocacy of your organizations with regard to changing university systems puts UHV in an awkward situation," Smith wrote this week in an email, obtained by the Advocate, to leaders of both agencies. "Our membership and membership dues may be seen as making the university part of an effort that conflicts with our identity and obligations as a constituent part of the UH System."

The economic development corporation and chamber of commerce publicly support House Bill 2556, legislation filed in recent weeks by state Rep. Geanie Morrison, a Victoria Republican.

If approved, the bill would move everything and everyone under UHV's umbrella from the University of Houston System into the Texas A&M University System.

State agencies such as universities are forbidden from advocating for or against Texas legislation.

"The issue here is not whether one agrees or disagrees as a member with an action an organization decides to take," Smith continued in his email. "The UH System does not exist apart from its constituent universities, and so unless and until the legislature should effect a separation, we are what we are. Until the fate of the bill has been decided, UHV is stuck in a dilemma."

Dale Fowler and Randy Vivian, presidents of the economic development corporation and chamber of commerce, respectively, said they would immediately suspend UHV's memberships.

Both men also said they understood fully Smith's predicament and look forward to renewing the university's membership once the fate of the bill was determined.

By phone, Smith answered specific questions regarding his decision to distance the university from the agencies.

Smith said the decision was his and not one forced upon him by the UH System. Before contacting Fowler and Vivian, he sought legal advice, he said.

By being a member of two groups that seek to influence legislation, the school is, by implication, party to the groups' actions, he said lawyers told him.

"We're not making any political statement here," Smith said. "We're just trying to do what seems to be appropriate and scrupulous."

Smith likened his decision to those made by city council members, who often abstain from voting if a potential conflict of interest arises.

He also said he would not cancel or move the Victoria Chamber of Commerce's April 13 luncheon, which is scheduled in the university's multi-purpose room.

Dennis Patillo, a Victoria businessman and HB 2556 advocate, is the keynote speaker. Patillo's talk will center on efforts to switch university systems.

"The multi-purpose room is a publicly available facility, and we're always glad to have community organizations use it," Smith said. "We don't dictate to or try to determine what the content of the presentations may be."

On Thursday, Smith alerted UHV employees about this story and explained his reasons for temporarily cutting ties with the two agencies.

In a separate email, also obtained by the Advocate, Smith told employees they can remain active with the two agencies so long as they refrain from campaigning for or against the legislation.

"One cannot, of course, control perceptions," Smith wrote to employees. "Some may see opposition in suspending membership; some may have seen support in not doing so. We can only do our best to ensure that we are, in fact, acting as scrupulously as possible in a situation in which our identity is at issue."

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