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HCC versus Dave Wilson, the continuing story

It’s a fight over legal fees.

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson

Dave Wilson has long been a thorn in the side of Houston Community College trustees. That hasn’t changed now that he’s one of them.

Wilson, a controversial figure long before he was elected to the HCC board in 2013, has done nothing to diminish his gadfly reputation in his first two years as a trustee. From a campaign criticized as deceptive and a dispute over whether he lives in the district he represents, to a complaint filed against the college and a legal tussle over his exclusion from an executive session, Wilson’s actions have rankled his fellow trustees since he took office in January 2014.

Now Wilson is preparing to sue HCC over roughly $50,000 in legal fees stemming from a lengthy and ongoing dispute over the election that put him on the board.

[…]

Wilson has won several rounds in the court dispute over his residency, which the county is continuing to appeal, saying that the case raises important issues of law.

“We believe that a person should not be able to claim the benefit of a residential homestead at one location while registering to vote at a different location,” Robert Soard, first assistant county attorney, said in an email. “More fundamentally, an elected representative should not be allowed to serve and set the tax rate for a district in which he does not personally reside.”

Wilson says HCC should cover his legal fees, but his fellow trustees disagreed. Wilson wasn’t able to garner the votes needed to put the item on an agenda after the state attorney general ruled last month that the college would have to prove paying the fees was for a public good.

“Based on the attorney general opinion we’ve received regarding this request, I don’t feel we have the authority to reimburse trustee Wilson from tax dollars,” board chairman Zeph Capo said in a text message. “Wilson’s legal dispute with the county began prior to beginning his term as a trustee. Given the AG ruling, I’m taking the advice he often gives us in similar circumstances … Let ’em sue.”

And that’s what Wilson plans to do.

“It’s going to be soon, it’s going to be real soon,” Wilson said Monday, after failing to get support from the trustees at last Thursday’s meeting.

Here’s the AG opinion in question. I Am Not A Lawyer, but my layman’s reading suggests the board is on reasonably firm ground here in exercising its discretion about whether or not to pony up. The concluding paragraph:

In sum, the College has discretion to reimburse a trustee for the expense of defending a quo warranto action only if it determines that the expenditure concerns a legitimate public interest of the College and not merely the trustee’s personal interest and that the quo warranto action involves acts that were undertaken by the trustee in good faith within the scope of an official duty. Tex. Att’y Gen. Op. No. GA-0104 (2003) at 4. Any determination by the College to reimburse a trustee’s expenses in the circumstances you describe would likely be subject to an abuse of discretion standard by a reviewing court. See Tex. Att’y Gen. Op. No. DM-450 (1997) at 9 (stating that a “decision by an institution of higher education will be set aside if it is arbitrary or umeasonable, or if it violates the law”). Thus, while it is for the College to make the initial determination, given the precedent involving election contests, a court is unlikely to conclude that the College has a public interest in paying the legal expenses associated with a challenge to a trustee’s qualifications for office.

There’s a footnote at the end that says they “cannot conclude that there could never be circumstances under which it is appropriate for a governmental entity to reimburse an official for costs he or she incurred in the defense of a quo warranto proceeding”, so Wilson could prevail in court. AG opinions are not legally binding, and clearly nothing is going to stop Wilson from having his day in court. We’ll see how it goes.

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