This article originally appeared in the Friday Sept. 6, 2019 issue of the Progress Times.
The Mission Housing Authority, which spent thousands on extravagant meals for board members and paid the bill with taxpayer money, attempted to avoid criticism last week by finding a new source of funding.
Executive Director Joel A. Gonzalez and Deputy Executive Director Jaime X. Ayala solicited a $5,000 donation from Coto De Casa, a nonprofit corporation affiliated with the housing authority, on Aug. 27. The money will cover meals for the housing authority board, Ayala said, along with ceremonial plaques for board members.
The housing authority is governed by a five-member board appointed by the mayor. Members set policy and supervise the executive director, who makes day-to-day management decisions.
For decades, the housing authority treated board members to dinner before their monthly meetings.
“It’s been going on for a long, long time,” said board Chairman Romeo de la Garza.
From January 2017 to December 2018, the housing authority spent nearly $3,900 on meals for board members, according to documents released under the Texas Public Information Act.
Meals ranged from $104.51 to $238.22, depending on the restaurant and the number of people who attended.
For example, the housing authority spent $224.25 at Villa Del Mar, a restaurant on the 200 block of East Expressway 83, on April 18, 2018.
Seven people attended the dinner, according to a copy of the receipt. They ordered five beverages, a variety of shrimp appetizers, fried fish, two botanas, chocolate flan and cheesecake.
The housing authority paid for the meal with taxpayer money, according to a copy of the check, which is stamped “CITY PILOT.”
Under an agreement between the housing authority and the city, PILOT money — an acronym for “Payment in Lieu of Taxes” — is supposed to be spent “to provide safe and decent housing assistance to the Needy and Elderly” and “to further the goals of the City of Mission, the Mission Housing Authority and Coto De Casa, Inc. in assistance on an Affordable Housing Program for the residents of Mission.”
“Originally I know it was being paid out of the low rent program,” Ayala said. “But then, under the advice of our auditor, a couple years ago we started paying out of the city PILOT, which is non-federal funds.”
The meals also run the risk of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act.
When a majority of the board meets to discuss housing authority business, state law requires the housing authority to post an agenda. Members of the public must be allowed to attend the meetings.
It’s legal for a majority of the board to meet for dinner, but any discussion of housing authority business would break the law.
“We’re very, very sure that we don’t do that,” de la Garza said, adding that board members usually discuss “old times” during meals.
Not all members of the board attend the dinners.
Commissioner Connie Garza and Commissioner Irma Flores Lopez, who joined the housing authority board in January, refused to attend.
Socializing at a restaurant before a board meeting creates the appearance of impropriety, Flores Lopez said. They also became concerned about the cost.
“How do you justify a meal before a meeting?” Flores Lopez said, adding that she didn’t understand why the housing authority would pay for a sit-down dinner where board members were prohibited by law from discussing official business.
Flores Lopez and Garza pushed the housing authority board to stop socializing at local restaurants before meetings. Members debated the issue but didn’t make a decision.
The questions, however, apparently convinced Gonzalez and Ayala to request $5,000 from Coto De Casa on Aug. 27.
“What we have, basically, is a concern from maybe even one or two board members at the housing authority,” Gonzalez said.
At the recommendation of Gonzalez and Ayala, the Coto De Casa board unanimously approved the donation. They promised to provide the Coto De Casa board with reports on how the money is spent.
“I think that those expenditures, in my opinion, are unnecessary,” Garza said. “And we need to be good stewards — because it’s somebody else’s money.”