Apr 24

Dual roles of Woodlands Board Members Raise Questions

As an elected board member of The Woodlands Township, Gordy Bunch helps decide how tax dollars are spent in the master-planned community of 108,000. As the chairman of The Woodlands Convention and Visitors Bureau, he strives to promote the community as an entertainment and dining destination.

Sometimes, those dual roles overlap, such as when he advocates on The Woodlands board for the nonprofit visitors bureau, which gets about $3 million a year in tax revenue from the township. Bunch acknowledges that this advocacy role can give him pause because he is a voting member of both entities.

“It’s self-serving,” he said. “But it’s the way the bylaws are written, they require that three members of The Woodlands are required to serve on the (nonprofit). So legally the bylaws require it. Still, it’s questionable.”

Bunch isn’t the only Woodlands board member wearing multiple hats. Each Woodlands board member sits on another committee or government entity, raising questions about whether elected officials should hold outside positions that have a direct tie to the board. Some residents also feel they don’t have enough opportunity to provide input at Woodlands board meetings, even though the township was established to give a stronger voice to residents.

Richard Murray, a University of Houston professor, said limited public participation in government affairs creates a potential for conflicts without accountability.

“The Woodlands is sort of a half-hybrid, unique to Texas in my experience – not a regular home-rule city – but possessing some of the powers of such,” he said. “With a special legislative approved status, they can operate more below the radar than a regular city of such size.”

The Woodlands Township began as a community improvement district in 1993 and expanded to an elected board of directors in 2010. It currently oversees more than $100 million in revenue from sales and property taxes to do everything from enforcing deed restrictions to maintaining the parks and greenbelts.

For years, The Woodlands has funded the visitors bureau’s budget through a hotel occupancy tax and program revenue generated by event sponsorships, booth sales, water taxis and the ice rink.

“And because of this, the Township has historically appointed members to serve so that the Township maintains a controlling interest,” said Don Norrell, president and general manager of The Woodlands Township. “The Township’s appointees then select the remaining CVB director positions, historically drawing on various private sector members of the tourism/business community within the Township who work diligently to stimulate hotel occupancy tax and sales tax dollars into the community.”

The Texas attorney general’s office says the arrangement doesn’t run afoul of any conflict-of-interest or ethics laws.

Questions have come up in the past about other Woodlands board members serving multiple roles.

In July 2014, some board members questioned if board member Mike Bass should be appointed to the Woodlands Road Utility District, which can issue bonds, enact a property tax and authorize major roadway and bridge projects. Bass also serves on a transportation committee established by the board that’s responsible for developing action plans,

“I’m having a little bit of trouble with government officials being appointed to another government entity,” board member Peggy Hausman said in July.

State law allows elected officials to serve on two separate government entities if they have a mutual agreement, said Mike Page, legal counsel for the township.

The board approved Bass’ appointment in December. He told board members he could remain objective in favor of residents just as he is during board and committee meetings.

Still, Page said he wouldn’t go so far as to say serving two roles wouldn’t present a moral dilemma.”

Also, in 2010, many questioned whether a resident could sit on a homeowners association and on The Woodlands board, which oversees many of the associations’ responsibilities.

At that time a few board members sat on the boards of the township and their homeowners associations, and it was advised at the time that township board members abstain from voting on or discussing a topic if it posed a conflict of interest.

Jonathan Smaby, executive director of the Texas Center for Legal Ethics, said generally that officials shouldn’t wear multiple hats.

“It seems a little unusual,” he said. “When you’re serving in a role you have to make sure it can’t be compromised. Most would say there’s too great of a risk.”

Gary Brown, a Lone Star College government professor, said the township is a young governmental body that is still maturing, and that as the population continues to grow, the government will also evolve. For now, it may be good to have a few steady hands guiding the local government.

“Professional local officials, not citizen local officials, know better the ins and outs that could lead them down the primrose path of wrongdoing, unethical behavior and misconduct,” he said. “We don’t want to become like New Jersey where some full-time elected officials often end up involved in bribery and graft …”

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