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2012-07-12

Kneupper resigns from BCRAGD board

By Carolyn B. Edwards BCC Staff Writer

Bandera County River Authority and Groundwater District board member Lee Kneupper submitted his resignation to the board in a letter dated July 2, 2012. Kneupper said in the letter "I am unable to devote the time and energy that the position requires."

During his first term of office, Kneupper was often the center of contention for various reasons.

• In December of 2011, BCRAGD board President Don Sloan submitted documents to the Texas Attorney General's Office asking for an opinion regarding whether some of Kneupper's emails had violated the Open Meetings Act.

• At about the same time, Sloan submitted a "complaint of official misconduct" to District Attorney Bruce Curry that included materials that indicated Kneupper may have participated in ex parte communications with an attorney representing a party against which the BCRAGD had filed a suit.

• An April 2011 BCRAGD board meeting was adjourned after 10 minutes when then board president Jim Chastain refused to allow a resident to speak. It was subsequently learned that Kneupper had participated in a flurry of emails with the resident that allegedly aimed to keep board member Karen Ripley from being re-elected.

• Kneupper's insertion of a large number of items on every agenda led to frequent and very long board meetings until the board voted on July 1, 2009, to limit the number of items each director can place on an agenda to two.

Kneupper's resignation letter arrived at the BCRAGD's offices just 18 days after Kneupper received a letter from County Attorney John Payne notifying him that the County Attorney's office was in receipt of the documents reflecting the concerns held by the BCRAGD's executive committee about Kneupper's emails.

Payne's letter said, "What I believe to be undisputed fact as evidenced by the referenced enclosures [sent to Kneupper by Payne] is that you have transmitted numerous emails to various recipients, including a sufficient number of BCRAGD board members in most if not all of the communications, to constitute a quorum, which emails have included Board business."

Payne's letter goes on to say, "...in reviewing the Attorney General's Opinion...it is quite possible for email communications, under certain circumstances, to result in violations of the [Open Meetings] Act."

AG's opinion

The AG's opinion referred to by Payne, numbered GA-0896, cites the Texas Government Code and previous AG's opinions to conclude, "members of a governmental body need not be in each other's physical presence to constitute a quorum...

Therefore, ...we conclude that electronic communications could, depending on the facts of a particular case, constitute a deliberation and a meeting that must comply with the Act."

Payne concluded his letter to Kneupper with "At this time I have not determined what appropriate action, if any, needs to be taken by my office, but I can say, unequivocally, that I am searching for an amicable disposition of this matter."

It remains to be seen if Kneupper's resignation will be considered "an amicable disposition."

On Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011, the editorial board of the Austin American Statesman published a statement about the AG's opinion regarding the BCRAGD matter, as well as a similar issue involving members of the Austin City Council, saying, "In plain speak, public officials must conduct public business in public. The law says so and its intent has been so interpreted by the courts on various occasions. We've noted before that regardless of advances in technology, the old-fashioned notion about public officials deliberating and discussing public business in public must remain a constant.

"Democracy is often clumsy, inefficient and cumbersome, but a temptation to make closed door decisions because they might be misunderstood is an expressway to disaster."

BCRAGD's Sloan said he and the executive committee of the district's board decided to submit the documents to the AG in part to protect themselves. "If you think there's something illegal and you don't act, you become complicit," said Sloan.

Troublesome emails

Emails also came to haunt Kneupper when local resident Karen Brown charged board member Karen Ripley with criminal acts in a failed attempt to allegedly prevent Ripley from being re-elected to the board.

In an email to Ripley, Brown demanded Ripley's resignation and threatened: "every person with whom you conduct business, all media outlets, and every taxpayer in Bandera County, will immediately be fully apprised regarding your criminal actions." Ripley, who has not been charged or convicted of any criminal actions, remains convinced that Kneupper and a local group called WaterMatters.org spearheaded the attack.

In emails between Brown and Kneupper, Kneupper opined that other board members also needed to be removed. He specifically referred to director Gene Wehmeyer, saying "He needs to go."

Ex parte contact

The BCRAGD executive committee also submitted to District Attorney Curry's office copies of emails from Kneupper sent to Rene Ruiz, an attorney representing the Flying L Ranch in a contested case before the BCRAGD. The committee thought the emails might be a case of ex parte communications. Ex parte contact can occur when an attorney communicates with another party outside the presence of that party's attorney.

According to BCRAGD General Manager Dave Mauk, it is apparently Ruiz who committed the violation in this instance. Ruiz is a part of the Cox Smith Attorneys law firm which has offices in San Antonio and Austin.

According to Mike Baker, investigator with the district attorney's office, the offense was considered a misdemeanor offense and the case was referred to County Attorney Payne's office.

Kneupper represented Precinct 4 on the River Authority's board. The precinct is also represented by Neil Boultinghouse of Utopia. Kneupper was elected to the board on May 9, 2009 and his term would have ended in 2013.

"We can appoint someone to fill his position or simply leave the position open until the election in 2013," said Sloan. Since the board will need to schedule meetings for their budget sessions, Sloan indicated the matter would be placed on the agenda soon.

Kneupper also serves on the boards of the Bandera County Public Library and the Bandera Electric Cooperative.