San Antonio Councilwoman says she didn’t break any rules asking city to spend $300K on staffer’s nonprofit

Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6) recommended a grant for the Latino Texas Policy Center, which was formed by her policy director

SAN ANTONIO – A Northwest Side councilwoman who asked the city to fund her employee’s nonprofit told KSAT her actions were aboveboard and there was “no conflict.”

Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda’s request to give $300,000 to the Latino Texas Policy Center was first reported by the San Antonio Report. The nonprofit’s executive director is Natalie Sanchez-Lopez, who is also the policy director for Cabello Havrda’s district office.

According to a proposal the center presented to city officials, $90,000 of the $300,000 would be for the executive director’s salary.

Cabello Havrda asked the city to provide a planning grant for the TLPC during an April 18 budget goal-setting session.

“They can be incredibly useful to council, to other governmental and nonprofit agencies, and really further inform and influence policies affecting those vulnerable communities,” Cabello Havrda said of the TLPC.

When KSAT asked why she didn’t mention her staff member’s involvement during her remarks, Cabello Havrda said, “I had no idea that I needed to.”

“There’s a lot of different organizations that I advocated for, and I don’t say that I know some of the people that are involved, specifically ARCSA (the Asian Resource Center of San Antonio) or the MACRI (Mexican American Civil Rights Institute),” she added. “And I didn’t realize that it was something people wanted to know.”

Cabello Havrda proposed funding for ARCSA during the same portion of the April 18 meeting. She said she advocated for the MACRI “a few years ago.”

‘ALL ABOUT THE PERCEPTION’

The councilwoman, who has previously said she plans to run for mayor in 2025, steadfastly denied that she had broken any rules.

“There’s a Code of Ethics, and I read through the Code of Ethics, and there is no conflict,” Cabello Havrda said.

Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) is a former chairwoman of the Ethics Review Board and is also considering a run for mayor. Though she said she doesn’t believe it’s another council member’s place to say if there has been an ethics violation, Rocha Garcia said, “I would never have done that myself.”

“So, to me, it’s all about the perception,” Rocha Garcia said. “We have to be extra guarded with what we do, in particular with our employees, and with the people...that we help coach up, right?”

Cabello Havrda said she discussed the issue with the City Attorney’s Office, which a city spokesman confirmed. Neither the councilwoman nor the spokesman would reveal what was said, but Cabello Havrda said she feels “confident that I have no conflict of interest.”

The city’s code of ethics forbids officials from taking official action that will affect their own economic interests or their family members. The prohibition extends to other relationships, such as outside clients, but subordinate employees don’t appear to be covered.

“I can see the perception,” Cabello Havrda said, “but I am, at the end of the day, a rule follower, and I — there’s no conflict. I didn’t break any rule.”

The councilwoman said she would recuse herself if the issue came to a vote. If the TLPC ended up receiving the grant, Sanchez-Lopez would have had to decide between staying with Cabello Havrda’s office and staying with the TLPC.

‘FORMATIVE STAGE’

The Latino Texas Policy Center was established in October 2022, according to Texas’ Secretary of State records, but does not appear to have had much income before now. Internal Revenue Service records show the TLPC took in less than $50,000 in 2023.

Its own planning proposal also states that the group is in its “formative stage of development.”

The group said a grant of $300,000 each year for two years would be used to identify local policy priorities, collect data, establish partnerships and determine applied policy priorities. It would also be used to “confirm” the group’s structure, strategy and opportunities for financial sustainability.

The TLPC’s goal is to “establish a Think Tank that builds a community of influence that addresses structural barriers to social and economic mobility,” according to the same proposal.

“While there are other applied policy research organizations and centers at universities in Texas, none are focused solely on the unique needs of the now majority Latino population,” the group writes.

The 2020 U.S. Census showed 39% percent of Texas residents are Latino.

Cabello Havrda also said the group could fill a gap. As for why she would support such a new organization, the councilwoman again pointed to her support for ARCSA and the MACRI.

“My focus is always that it’s not continued city funding, right? We get you kind of on your feet, especially newer ones,” Cabello Havrda said. “And that’s why it’s important that we invest in new organizations. So they get on their feet, and then the city funding gets to go to another new organization, and they kind of move on and find their own funding.”

City staff will put forward a draft city budget in August for the 2025 fiscal year, which runs from October 2024 through September 2025.

There could be a harder fight over budget priorities this year, though. City staff expect a budget deficit over the next two years of at least $10.6 million.


About the Authors

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.

Adam Barraza is a photojournalist at KSAT 12 and an El Paso native. He interned at KVIA, the local ABC affiliate, while still in high school. He then moved to San Antonio and, after earning a degree from San Antonio College and the University of the Incarnate Word, started working in news. He’s also a diehard Dodgers fan and an avid sneakerhead.

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