GALVESTON — The Galveston Housing Authority said Monday it will seek a state attorney general’s opinion on whether the City Council could appoint ex officio members to its board, and whether ex officio members should be allowed to attend the board’s executive session.
The announcement came minutes after District 1 Councilman Tarris Woods was physically barred from entering the housing authority’s executive session during Monday morning’s regular meeting.
At about 9:30 a.m., housing commissioners adjourned their regular meeting to enter executive sessions, where they were posted to consult with GHA attorney Carla Cotropia and to have a discussion regarding real estate.
As the commissioners began to enter the hall leading to the commissioners’ board room, Cotropia and housing commission Chairman Irwin “Buddy” Herz stopped Woods from following.
Woods objected to being barred, saying he had an opinion from the office of City Attorney Dorothy Palumbo saying he should be allowed into the session.
The confrontation became heated at some points, with Woods calling the housing authority’s legal opinion “bull(expletive)” and accusing Cotropia of assaulting him when she stopped him from entering the doorway.
A Galveston Police Department officer at the scene eventually stepped in to separate Woods from the group.
“I feel like my rights are being denied,” Woods said. “They’re in executive session, and I’m being held out here in the hallway.”
Woods is the city’s ex officio appointee to the housing authority. The position is a nonvoting one.
He became the ex officio member of the commission after he was sworn into to his position June 30.
After speaking with the police officer, Woods left the premises. He said he would consult with the city attorney about his ability to fully participate in future meetings.
After the board of commissioners returned from the executive session, Herz said the housing authority would seek an attorney general’s opinion not only on the ability of an ex officio member to participate in executive sessions, but of the ability of the City Council to appoint a member to the housing authority board.
Herz said the housing authority differs from other boards that are appointed by the City Council, such as the Park Board of Trustees. Housing authorities are created according to a state statute and specify that commissioners must not be an “officer or employee” of the city.
Officials acknowledged that, in the past, council members who have been appointed to the housing authority have been welcome at executive session. But they insisted the board had shifted its policies in recent years. Former Mayor Lewis Rosen was not allowed to attend executive sessions but occasionally walked with commissioners to their board room immediately before a session began.
Woods was not allowed in the hallway that Rosen once accessed freely.
“I’ve kept a consistent opinion that he can’t come back there,” Cotropia said. “If I let a third party in, I have completely busted attorney-client privilege and it’s no longer confidential. That’s sacred.”
Monday was not the first time Woods had been told he was not allowed in certain parts of the Island Community Center by housing authority officials. In May, before he was elected, Woods received a letter from housing authority attorney Robert Booth informing him that his access to the GHA office suite was prohibited.
The letter cited Woods’ “abusive behavior” toward GHA staff members on the morning of May 20 when Woods was at the office dealing with issues related to his participation in the housing authority’s housing choice voucher program.
Housing authority officials and Woods both said that letter did not apply to Monday’s incident, but Woods still is required to meet with housing authority employees in a public meeting room while housing authority interim Executive Director Mona Purgason is present.
On Monday, Mayor Jim Yarbrough called the incident with Woods “embarrassing” and welcomed the housing authority’s bid for an attorney general’s opinion.
Yarbrough also said he was unsure whether having council members serve as nonvoting members of boards was necessary.
“I think it’s important that City Council members attend City Council meetings,” Yarbrough said. “Do I think it’s important to have somebody on there? Absolutely not.”