HCC will have an election to fill its vacancy

So much for an appointment.

Re: HCC Board of Trustees District II Position

Residents of District II and the Community At-Large:

The Houston Community College (HCC) Board of Trustees remains committed to serving the best interest of the entire community. This commitment extends to our students, faculty, staff, and equally to each and every district that comprises the HCC service area.

During the course of the past few months, the HCC governing board has had the responsibility of navigating challenging circumstances which directly impact District II and its residents. In fact, these unforeseen circumstances impact the entire HCC district and call upon us as a governing board to act prudently in a manner that best serves our community, while meeting the legal and policy requirements available to us.

Notably, the events surrounding the District II position have been distressing for many in District II, the HCC community, and for the HCC governing board. However, we will overcome this difficulty by working together in service to our remarkably diverse community.

To advance this important matter, the law provides for an election to fill the District II trustee position in May 2022. This anticipated election empowers the people of District II to choose their desired trustee and once elected, that individual will begin service on the HCC Board of Trustees. Until a new trustee is seated, we invite the District II community to apprise us of any concerns, questions and needs that may arise.

We greatly appreciate all the residents of District II and your patience throughout this process. We will continue to diligently work – in partnership – with the community to ensure that we all emerge from this situation stronger.

See here and here for the background. The message was signed by Dr. Cynthia Lenton-Gary, the new Board Chair. I don’t know why they were unable to find a suitable person to appoint to the position, which has been the normal course of action, but here we are. The election has not yet been set – I presume that will happen at the next Board meeting – but as noted before, it will be the only election run by Harris County on the uniform election date in May, which is Saturday, May 7. The primary runoff date is Tuesday, May 24, so you lucky duckies in HCC District 2 will get to vote twice in May. The lucky ducky who wins that election will then have to run again in 2023 get to serve through the end of what would have been Skillern-Jones’ term, through 2025. I’ll let you know when there’s more.

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4 Responses to HCC will have an election to fill its vacancy

  1. John Hansen says:

    Charles: You have it wrong. An appointed trustee has to stand for retention at the next HCC election (Nov 2023). The winner of a special election has the entire remaining term of the resigned trustee (in this case until Dec 2025).

    I can make no official statement about the trustees’ reasons, since I am no longer on the Board and am no longer Board Chair. I was in the middle of this until December 31st. I believe the problem arose because of the timing of Rhonda Skillern-Jones’ resignation – coming right at the start of the 2 week Christmas break. Under State law, an appointment has to be made within 30 calendar days of the date when the resignation is effective. In this case that deadline was January 21st since the resignation was accepted on December 22nd. If no appointment is made within that 30 day period, the special election at the next uniform election date is mandatory. The HCC Board admittedly had some difficulty deciding which route to go and they simply ran out of time to make a thoughtful decision.

    However, I fail to see why a special election is a bad outcome. There were multiple viable candidates and most of them were not known to the other 8 trustees (who obviously do not live in HCC District 2). So they decided to let the voters make the choice.

    If SJL or Boris Miles or Senfronia resigned or died, they would not be replaced with an appointee, they would be replaced in a Special Election. So why is it so terrible for HCC to do the same?

    Admittedly, there is a cost to such a special election. But, we are currently being inundated with media pieces about the potential “death of our democracy”. Here the HCC Board chose to take the democratic option of letting the voters make the decision and they are being attacked for it. Why?

  2. John,

    First, thank you for the correction. I have revised the post.

    The issue with having a special election in May, besides the cost, is that it will literally be the only other election in Harris County at that time, and as such the turnout for it is likely to be abysmal. There will also be confusion because of the primary runoffs that will be happening later in May. In principle, having an election versus making an appointment is more democratic, but the conditions of this election are such that the chances of the winner not being a true reflection of the community is non-trivial. The fact that the winner would serve through 2025 and not have to face election in 2023, in a more normal setting, exacerbates that risk.

    For the other examples you cite, there would be a lot more attention paid to the special election, and a lot more resources expended to make the voters aware of the campaign and their choices. We know that won’t be the case here.

    The normal course of action has always been for the HCC Board to appoint a replacement, and then for that position to be on the next November ballot. That has happened multiple times in the past 20 or so years, but for some reason it didn’t happen this time. We don’t know why they deviated from that norm this time (see my point above in re: information available to voters for this May election). Maybe, as I suggested, no one suitable applied for the position in time. Maybe there was some other reason. I might feel differently if I knew the reason, but I don’t.

    I don’t have a problem with special elections, even ones that happen at weird times and don’t draw a lot of attention. I am concerned about this one because it was unexpected, and we don’t know why. It’s not a bad outcome, it’s a strange one. It would be nice to understand the reasons for it.

  3. John Hansen says:

    Charles: I believe the answer to your question is a combination of the unfortunate timing of Rhonda’s resignation combined with some high pressure on certain trustees from external sources.

    Rhonda’s resignation was received on December 17th, after our December 15th regular meeting. The only meeting we had scheduled before mid-January was a December 22nd Special Meeting for canvassing the District 8 runoff election. So, as Board Chair, I added the resignation item as an emergency item. A sizeable group from District 2 who wanted to see Kathy Gunter appointed to the vacancy spoke and demanded that the community get to choose their own representative. We had a lengthy closed session where the Board Counsel explained the options we had which were only two: (1) appoint a replacement who would serve until November 2023, or (2) call a special election for May 2022 where the person elected would serve until December 2025. We specifically did not have the option of appointing until May and then holding a special election. I cannot say what each Trustee was thinking, but it appeared to me that the group that spoke did affect the Trustees about letting the community choose. I think the Trustees interpreted that as meaning “hold an election”. So, when we went back into open session, the trustees chose not to create a process for an appointment – which was the actual agenda item. If no appointment occurred within 30 days, a special election would be mandatory.

    I honestly believe the Trustees thought that was what the District 2 constituents were requesting. I argued for taking no action on the resignation since it would automatically be accepted on December 27th and that would give the Trustees an extra 5 days to make an appointment, if they changed their minds. But, I think the Trustees felt the public would not understand why we did not accept the resignation. So, the resignation was accepted on the 22nd and no process for an appointment was approved.

    I was still Board Chair until December 31st, but I saw no need for further action since the Trustees had overwhelmingly spoken against an appointment and the election call would not be made until February. However, somewhere between December 22nd and January 12th, some serious lobbying took place. At the January 12th meeting (by which time I was off the Board), the Board completely reversed itself and voted 6-2 (Rhonda did not participate) to create a process for an appointment. I didn’t see how this could realistically work since there were only 9 days left, but I was no longer part of the decision. Reagan Flowers as acting Board Chair placed a vote on the appointment on the January 19th agenda. However, there were a number of applicants and the Trustees wanted to interview them, but there was no time left to really do that between the 19th and the 21st deadline. I think that reality dawned upon most of the Trustees, so they went back to the original plan of holding a special election.

    If the Trustees had followed my recommendation of not accepting Rhonda’s resignation on December 22nd, they would have had until January 26th to make the appointment and I think it could have been accomplished. However, once the resignation was accepted on the 22nd and no process was put in place, I think the option of appointment ceased to be feasible.

    There certainly was no backroom plot to manipulate the process. Ironically, if the Gunter supporters had not spoken, there probably would have been an appointment process put in place and Kathy Gunter could have applied. She probably has a good shot at winning the special election, so the outcome may well be what she wanted. Your point about the danger of a low turnout election is certainly valid, but even a low turnout can produce a representative outcome if the voters are a representative cross-section of the community.

    Well, I hope this at least makes sense of how the outcome occurred. I realize that it did not look pretty, but I think there was never any malicious intent.

  4. John, thanks very much for the detailed explanation. I hadn’t really considered the timing issue. Hopefully we’ll get a good candidate elected in May.

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