Newly-elected Devine Mayor Cory Thompson warned that the City’s project to lure private developers to the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone near IH-35 could be “$3.5 million worth of failure” and expressed concern that both the News front page coverage, as well as potential conflict of interest for City Attorney Tom Cate after his son Charles Cate’s election to the Lytle City Council, as potential threats to the plan’s success.
During the meeting last Tuesday, November 24, Thompson asked both for Council’s permission to write a column in the News and that the News’s status as the City’s newspaper of record be contingent upon being given a column.
He also asked Council to “phase Tom out” of his role as City Attorney once a new City Administrator has been hired.
“It may be the truth, but do you really want that on the front page?”
The City’s plan to make the 43.58 acres it owns along the IH-35 access road behind Triple C Steakhouse attractive to private developers involves constructing a thoroughfare to connect Hwy. 173 with the access road and County Road 3176, as well as extending utility lines and building a lift station to pump sewage. City Engineer Raul Garcia estimated the price of the project at $3.5M when the plan was unveiled in November 2019, a figure that did not include the purchase of additional private property needed to implement it.
Since then, the City has entered into a contract to buy an additional 28 acres in the area for $325,000.
Thompson said the City was spending a lot of money on property near IH-35 to make it usable for companies who want to invest in the area, and claimed part of the research companies perform when deciding where to expand their businesses includes reading local newspapers.
Thompson, who brought a stack of past editions of the News to the meeting as props, criticized recent front page coverage, specifically regarding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s truly negative,” Thompson said. “I don’t want somebody coming into Devine and looking at the paper and going, ‘You know, what kind of a hell did I get myself into?’ Because that’s what it looks like.”
Thompson said that News front pages don’t reflect the positive goings-on in Devine, which is, “not all dead bodies in the middle of the road,” a reference to a recent fatal hit-and-run.
“Now, I’m not here to tell the paper how to run their business,” Thompson said. “They are a private company. But they are a private company that we pay a lot to because they are our paper of record.
“I just signed a $5,000-plus check to The Devine News, I’m pretty sure I signed a $5,000-plus check two weeks ago to The Devine News, and so we have to make sure we’re completely happy with the way that they are presenting the town that we as Council represent, and make sure that they are presenting the town in the manner that is actually reflective of the citizens that we represent.”
Municipalities and some other government entities are legally required to have a newspaper of record in which to publish public notices as part of transparent governance for taxpayers. Examples include Ordinance changes, public health emergency declarations, and election notices. Public notices, like ads, are paid.
As mayor, Thompson only votes on Council matters in the case of a tie, but made his own requirement for working with the News clear.
“I do ask, going forwards, if we are going to continue with them as the paper of record, that whoever is mayor gets a column in the paper no different than what Jerry Beck has,” Thompson said, “which is a bi-weekly column to discuss the happenings in his district that he represents as our county commissioner.”
Beck, the longtime Precinct 4 County Commissioner, writes a bi-weekly column recapping Commissioners Court meetings, which are held every other Thursday morning at the Medina County Courthouse in Hondo.
Thompson asked again if Council was satisfied with the News’s front page coverage.
“We have to remember we may read past it, but if you’re a big company coming in, or if you’re a person coming in to look at Devine, and you see the fact that we don’t have proper EMS service, and that’s the front page on it, why would you want to move to Devine? Because you’re going to be sitting there, ‘I hope I don’t have a heart attack because EMS is never going to get to me, I’m going to die right there.’
“And it may be the truth, but do you really want that on the front page?”
“If the real true hard facts are out there and they bother you, I’m sorry.”
News publisher Kathleen DuBose Calame said that COVID-19 was an important issue to cover, and noted that everyone at the meeting was wearing a face mask.
“I don’t think it’s Halloween, it’s because of COVID,” Calame said. “It’s because it’s real, it’s the real truth, and it’s bad, and it’s coming this way.”
Later in the meeting, Emergency Management Coordinator Rob Flores recommended closing City Hall, the police department lobby, and the Driscoll Public Library to the public due to an increase in COVID-19 infections in Devine and Medina County. All three remained closed as of press day December 1.
“We interviewed doctors, we interviewed nurses, we interviewed researchers to do the real thing, the real hard truth, so people know that it’s real,” Calame said. “We interviewed people in our community who have had it, and what they’ve gone through, so that people can understand it is real. And it is real.
“So whether you think it’s important or not for the public to know, it is important.”
Calame also noted that following a recent front page editorial about ambulance coverage in ESD #4 (see “Editorial: Give away extra ESD money? Why not use it for greater EMS coverage and hire two full-time ambulances?” in the Nov. 4 edition), service in the Devine and Natalia area was upgraded from one 24-hour ambulance and one 12-hour ambulance to two ambulances stationed in the district around the clock (see “Allegiance to increase ambulance service for ESD #4,” Nov. 18 edition).
“Because we did that article, we now have two ambulances full-time here, instead of one and a half,” Calame said. “Because there was concern, because we documented it, all of a sudden the CEO of [Allegiance Mobile Health] says, ‘You know what, I didn’t realize that. Let’s make it happen. It’ll be on my dime, we’re going to prove it, and when the next contract comes up, then we’ll talk about it.’
“That’s what a real newspaper is about.”
Further, Calame said the News is full of positive coverage.
“We’re here to build up this community,” Calame said. “Now if the real true hard facts are out there and they bother you, I’m sorry. But [COVID-19] is real. People need to know it’s real. They want to know what’s going on, that’s why they buy the paper.
“They don’t want us to fluff it and make it look like nothing’s going on.”
She added that the News hasn’t received a complaint about coverage from City staff or the City Attorney, but noted that the paper can’t run articles on everything, or columns from elected officials in every governmental entity, because it covers Devine, Natalia, and Lytle, as well as the school districts in all three towns, and has limited page space.
The News is now the paper of record for all three towns, as well as the City of La Coste.
Calame said the News covers athletes, UIL, and kids, which are important in our communities.
She also thanked Thompson for his concern, and said that his idea of writing a column was a good one.
“I think it’s a great idea, and I think you need to do that in a positive way,” Calame said. “You said no politics involved, and I think it needs to be on your website. That’s where you are representing Devine.”
The City has its own website, which can be found at www.cityofdevine.org.
Following Calame’s remarks, Thompson again criticized the News’ front page stories, specifically “Dog reunited with owner after 3 years missing,” which ran in the Nov. 11 edition.
“A story about a dog is more important than a story about our students?” Thompson asked regarding the Nov. 11 article.
Photos of the Devine, Natalia, and Lytle athletes who qualified for the State cross country meet were on the front page along with the article about the dog reunited with its owner, and an entire page of the sports section is devoted to the runners’ achievement.
The cross country athletes were also on one side of a full page color poster in the same edition that featured the Regional Quarterfinals champion Arabian volleyball team on the other side.
“Whenever a story about a dog is more important than a story about our students, I do take issue with that,” Thompson said. “You know the way a paper works, the further down you go is the importance of the story.”
“You don’t know my business,” Calame replied. “You know your business. You’re a home builder. You build subdivisions, you run City business. You don’t run my business.”
Thompson works for G&E Custom Homes, a business formed and owned by his parents, Glenn and Eva Thompson.
Jim Lawler, husband of newly-elected District 4 Councilwoman Kathy Lawler, asked if the Council had approached the News about any concerns.
“Your implied action about the cost of the two $5,000 checks sounds to me like an implied ‘gotcha’ or something,” Lawler said. “Payback. We don’t need that.”
Thompson balked at Lawler’s interpretation, repeating that the News is the City’s paper of record, and that Council needs to be happy with its representation.
“My concern is, has the Council approached the newspaper about your concerns?” Lawler asked.
“We have to have a meeting like this to even approach the Council, to approach the paper,” Thompson replied.
Thompson initially requested that the News give him column space in a private message sent from his personal Facebook account on Nov. 5, prior to the matter appearing on the agenda of the Nov. 17 meeting. During that meeting, discussion was postponed until Nov. 24.
After a motion from District 2 Councilman Steve Lopez and Lawler to deny Thompson’s request for permission to write a column for the News, District 3 Councilman David Espinosa said that he disagreed with Thompson’s position but said it would be to the City’s advantage to publicize more once a new City Administrator has been hired.
“If somebody wants to come in here and look at what we’re doing, I’m sure they’re going to go to the City website initially to find out what’s going on,” Espinosa said.
The Lopez-Lawler motion passed 4-1 with the support of Espinosa and District 1 Councilman Rufino “Flipper” Vega.
District 5 Councilwoman Debra Randall voted nay.
“I think that you should be more concerned about the reality.”
Discussion regarding City Attorney Tom Cate and a conflict of interest took place in open session after Cate said it didn’t meet the necessary legal requirements in be held in executive session.
Thompson started the discussion by congratulating Cate on his son Charles’s election to the Lytle City Council before voicing doubts about Cate’s position as City Attorney for both Devine and Lytle, specifically regarding the City’s plans to develop the TIRZ zone near IH-35.
“I’m going to point out the highway especially, because that’s going to be a thing that if it does not happen correctly, will be a major disaster,” Thompson said. “If we do not get that land out there and everything goes super smoothly, it’s not going to work. And honestly, I don’t know if it’s a good situation for us here to have somebody advising us who literally, you live in Lytle, and now your son is actually on the City Council.”
In addition to his position as City Attorney for Devine and Lytle, Cate has a private practice in Lytle.
“As we know with City Council members, our job is to do the absolute best for the City that we represent,” Thompson said. “And if we have something, some sort of an ‘in’ or some sort of information or something like that, we kind of use it, right? This is what we do, like if there’s some insider information or some sort of information that benefits here in Devine, we use it.”
Thompson highlighted his view that Devine and Lytle are in direct competition to bring in outside development.
“My fear going forwards is that the fact that we need to make sure that we have absolutely everything we need here in Devine to make sure that Devine – because we are in a competition, Lytle is competition for us – that everybody who’s here, everybody who’s advising Council, does not have some sort of an interest somewhere else, even if it’s just minor,” Thompson said. “And I wouldn’t necessarily say that having a child on City Council is a minor interest.”
He added that people speak to his parents about City business, and that his parents direct them elsewhere.
“We need to think about the team that we want to put together so we don’t have a failure out there on the highway, $3.5 million worth of failure out there on the highway,” Thompson said.
Thompson also spoke about both current and future commercial and residential development in Lytle and reiterated that city is competition for Devine.
“A lot of people have asked for me to bring this up over the years because they didn’t like the fact that a competing town nine miles up the road, or eight miles up the road, we use the same attorney as the City of Lytle, or he’s advising both of us,” Thompson said. “I have defended you, but there was not that clear connection. I don’t know how as mayor I can defend, where your son is literally sitting on the Council and trying his best to make Lytle the best city possible when we’re here trying to make Devine the best city possible, knowing that we’re in direct competition with Lytle for a lot of things.”
Thompson said that that he, “was in no way, shape, or form, saying that we need to axe Tom tonight,” but that, “we need to make sure that nobody can say ‘Hey, we didn’t get a Chili’s because’ – and they will, it’s not even the truth – but ‘we didn’t get a Chili’s because Tom Cate. We didn’t get a Cracker Barrel because of Tom Cate.’
“Well that’s not really the case, but that’s where we are opening ourselves up to, especially since your son’s now on Council up there and is advocating for them.”
“So what are you asking?” Espinosa asked.
“Really what I’m asking is that we just go ahead and as we bring in the new City Administrator, we go ahead and phase Tom out,” Thompson replied.
The City has narrowed down its search for a new City Administrator to four candidates and has discussed the issue in executive session several times but has yet to make a hire.
“I see what you’re talking about, but I just don’t see it happening,” Espinosa said. “I’m naive, but that’s not going to fly with me. It’s not going to fly, I guarantee that right now. I might be the only one here that’s not, but no, I’m not going to go for that.”
Cate addressed Council and said that he hadn’t had a conflict of interest between the City of Devine and the City of Lytle, and that he is told about development after it’s already been set.
“My son’s been working for me for probably 12 years, so if there’s been conflict, there’s been conflict for that long,” Cate said. “When I get involved with these subdivisions that’s trying to work something out with the City, it’s already done. I have nothing to do with bringing that development in.”
Cate described his role as that of a mechanic, working on things like zoning and utilities, and that the last time he had reached out to any businesses to gauge interest in moving to the area was in 1995. According to Cate, both Walmart and Cracker Barrel had no interest, though Walmart later opened a store in Devine.
“It’s just like QT,” Cate said. “If you talk to the QT people, they tell you that they do their homework first. There’s nobody in this room who could bring QT in by themselves.”
Cate said that Thompson’s concerns about a conflict of interest were not well-founded.
“I would be more concerned with confidences and secrets,” Cate said. “I would challenge you, Cory, to give me an example of any time where I’ve had a conflict of interest with the City of Devine, or where I have divulged confidences and secrets of this City to anyone.”
“I don’t have that,” Thompson replied. “I’m not going to lie, I don’t have that.”
Thompson said he brought the matter up after receiving “a lot of pushback” from citizens, and Cate said that the pushback wasn’t well-founded either.
“It’s about perception,” Thompson said.
“Well, I think that you should be more concerned about the reality,” Cate replied.
Cate graduated from St. Mary’s Law School in 1980 and said he has been licensed to practice law since 1981. He has been City Attorney for Devine and Lytle for several decades.
“I challenge anybody on this Council, any prior Council, any administration, to point out where there’s been conflict between my representing the City of Devine and representing the City of Lytle,” Cate said. “And, even more importantly, where I have divulged any confidences or secrets of the City of Devine to the advantage of anybody else.”
Cate requested that matter be included on the agenda for the next meeting.
“It’s easy to pull stuff out of the air, but to substantiate it and prove it, that’s a different story,” Cate said. “I could lose my license for violating the code of ethics, the disciplinary rules. I take this very seriously.”
He added that you can’t be a lawyer in a small town and divulge secrets and confidences and have conflicts of interest.
“If you can tell the other members of this Council sitting around this Council table tonight that you know where I breached some type of confidentiality, or secrets, or had a conflict of interest between the City of Lytle and the City of Devine, I want you to tell them right now,” Cate said.
“No, I don’t have it,” Thompson replied. “My point was what we’re going forward with.”
Cate asked if Thompson thought his ethics were going to change after 40 years now that the City of Devine was pursuing development, which he said moves outward from San Antonio.
“If that development’s going to get to Devine, it’s not going to be because of me, and I’m not going to hinder it,” Cate said. “And people are going to go to Lytle because they’re closer to San Antonio, and that’s what the market demands. You can do your market studies, and that’s what they do, the developers. I don’t waste my time. I’m too busy being a mechanic.
“So I understand what Cory said, I just totally disagree with it. Actually, I’m offended by it.”
Cate said that he serves as City Attorney at the will of the Council, which can vote to dismiss him at any time.
“But I don’t want it to be based upon some pie in the sky thing that people are telling Cory,” he said.
Thompson then moved on to a list of things he disagreed with Cate about, citing the City’s garbage contract and the fact that Cate had previously advised against expanding the City limits.
State law was changed during the most recent Legislative session to make it more difficult for municipalities to annex territory into their City limits. Landowner or voter approval is now required for most annexations by Texas cities.
Thompson said that Cate advised against annexation prior to the change in the law, when it was easier to do so.
“So things like that,” Thompson said. “Like I said, it’s not – it’s the perception. It’s the perception.”
“Perception is based upon smoke and mirrors,” Cate said. “It’s not based upon reality, and the reality is that I’ve given this city 37 good years of service.”
Randall noted that she was unaware that Charles Cate worked for Tom’s private practice, and asked if Charles had worked on anything for the City of Devine.
Cate said that Charles was helping with the City’s ongoing pursuit of easements related to the water line replacement project (see “Eminent domain a possibility for completion of water line replacement project” in this edition).
“I just think, it does feel, when Cory says perception, I hear the same thing from District 5,” Randall said. “That’s why I’m asking you. It’s a councilman from another, competing city, and I didn’t even know he worked for you, Tom.”
When Cate repeated that his son has worked for him for 12 years and asked if she had noticed anything untoward in his work, Randall said that she hadn’t.
“What I’m saying, again, you get that perception thing, and now they’re going to say, ‘Wow, a City Councilman in Lytle is working on our stuff, on Devine stuff?’ I’m not saying the [entire] City Council, Council, I’m saying a Councilperson.
“I don’t know, I’m sure [Charles] hasn’t done anything wrong. I’m not going there.”
Espinosa asked how the situation would hinder anything in Devine.
“It’s just the fact that they’re a competing city, and we will have zero secrets,” Randall said.
She added that she wasn’t going to take a side at the moment, but that she had received phone calls about the matter, and Espinosa encouraged residents with concerns to attend meetings to share those concerns with Council.
Cate asked if Randall knew of anything that had passed through his office and hurt the City of Devine, and she said she didn’t.
“I’m not saying that,” Randall said. “I just didn’t know that your son worked for you too, and he’s a City Councilperson now.”
Thompson said the people who questioned Cate’s position were from either District 3 or 4, and Espinosa requested their names so he could invite them to the next Council meeting.
“If there’s a genuine concern, then we can encourage them to come to a Council meeting, great,” Lawler said. “But other than that, people talk, and let them talk if they don’t want to come in and ask the question.”
“People out there out there in the community voice their opinions, but they don’t come to the meetings, so they don’t know exactly what’s going on,” Espinosa said, and again encouraged residents to attend meetings or read the News.
“They just go by hearsay, what they’ve been told, and that gets turned around and mixed around,” Espinosa said. “That’s what the issue is. They get misled.”
“We’re still going to get phone calls,” Randall said. “I’m just letting you know.”
“We chose to do this,” Espinosa replied. “Phone calls are a common thing.”
Regular Council meetings are scheduled for the third Tuesday of the month at 6:00 PM, with Special meetings scheduled as deemed necessary. Audio recordings of Council meetings are available upon request via City Hall for those who are unable to attend.
By Marly Davis