ROBSTOWN, TX—Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp hosted a sometimes heated town hall meeting at the Richard M. Borchard Regional Fairgrounds on Nov. 21 to answer concerns regarding a proposed merger between system campuses in Kingsville and Corpus Christi.
Sharp traveled from College Station to address concerned members of the public after news surfaced Nov. 10 that suggested a backroom meeting on Oct. 5 took place between Sharp, TAMUK President Steven Tallant, several prominent South Texas businessmen and elected state officials.
The public, including students, faculty and staff at both campuses, were only made aware of the proposed merger plans after State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, who was present at the Oct. 5 meeting, confirmed to a Corpus Christi television station on Nov. 2 that the system board of regents was set to hear a presentation delivered by Tallant regarding the idea.
Sharp took exception to news accounts depicting the October meeting as anything unusual.
“I did not call a secret meeting, I did not participate in a secret meeting,” Sharp told the Robstown gathering of a few hundred people.
Philip C. Skrobarczyk, president of the TAMUCC Foundation and head of Fulton Construction, attended the October meeting with Sharp and Tallant. He later distributed a document containing notes from the meeting and suggested that he did so out of a sense of duty to give any merger process more transparency.
During Sharp’s Robstown town hall, the chancellor urged Skrobarczyk, who was in attendance, to release any recording he may have made of the October meeting, claiming the longtime developer’s notes contained only selective details.
“If you taped the meeting, I beg you Philip, turn the tape over to the press and let them see everything … not bits and pieces,” said Sharp, who added that the public’s misperception over the October meeting has likely killed any momentum for the merger.
Skrobarczyk told the South Texan later that while he didn’t tape the meeting, he is an excellent note taker.
“If I can’t sit through an hour-long meeting and not take vivid notes, then I wouldn’t be a very good businessman now would I?”
In fact, many details Skrobarczyk recorded from the October meeting closely match details Hinojosa made public on Nov. 2 and many that Tallant shared with regents on Nov. 10.
Skrobarczyk was not the only October meeting attendee Sharp had harsh words for at the town hall.
State Rep., J.M. Lozano, a Republican representing Kleberg County, got an ear full from Sharp over comments the politician made to the Texas Tribune after Skrobarczyk’s October meeting notes were made public.
Lozano called Sharp a liar and suggested his behavior was bad enough to merit losing his position leading the university system, according to the Tribune.
“The issue now is I want an explanation and an apology to the people of Kingsville and Corpus Christi for there not being transparency,” Lozano told the news website. “And I want the regents to investigate why this has happened to make sure that no future chancellor does this.”
Sharp called Lozano’s bluff.
“When you called me a liar for saying that you did not say, ‘I’m for this as long as you protect Kingsville Engineering,’ that’s a lie,” Sharp told the Robstown gathering. (SEE VIDEO)
Coincidentally, on the same day Lozano attended the October meeting with Sharp, Tallant and the others, he also participated in a debate in Jones Auditorium hosted by TAMUK’s Javelina Press Club and the Kingsville Record and Bishop News.
Lozano said nothing during the debate about any merger plans, nor about his opposition to them.
Skrobarczyk told the South Texan that he recalled the state legislator supporting the idea of a merger at the October meeting so long as it wouldn’t negatively affect TAMUK’s growing engineering program.
Lozano’s sudden opposition to the merger idea—just as Hinojosa’s–developed the same day Skrobarczyk’s notes became public.
Hinojosa, a Democrat whose District 20 seat covers most of Nueces County, as well as state representatives Todd Hunter, a Republican, and Abel Herrero, a Democrat, both from Corpus Christi, issued a statement on Nov. 10 suggesting they were against any merger, though Hinojosa didn’t communicate such sentiments when he made the plan public to KRIS-TV on Nov. 2.
Despite local politicians running for cover over their own roles regarding the merger plans, not everyone at the Robstown town hall was willing to let the “secret meeting” kill the merger outright.
Multiple members of the audience voiced their support for a merger, particularly after Tallant reiterated the financial benefits of the idea. He told the crowd a more robust South Texas A&M could draw as much as $250 million to the area.
One merger supporter, former longtime Corpus Christi state legislator Hugo Berlanga, who served the area from 1977 to 1998, gave a rousing speech about how the merger could transform the economic fortunes of the Coastal Bend.
Berlanga said South Texas had for too long allowed intra-community conflict to stifle progress.
Still, the whiff of backroom dealing hung in the air as the two-hour town hall meeting began to break up.
One critical question remained unanswered: If Sharp didn’t call that October meeting, who did?
Susie Luna Saldana, president of the Corpus Christi Association of United School Employees (CCAUSE), first raised the question.
Sharp said he was merely invited to the meeting. Asked by whom, the audience chuckled when the chancellor said he couldn’t remember.
“How do you not know who invited you to a meeting? [Skrobarcyzk] let people know what was going on…this thing wouldn’t have been stopped. I represent teachers, and a lot of them work for [TAMUCC],” Saldana said.
Later, Skrobarcyzk told the South Texan who he thought was behind the “secret meeting.”
“[Sharp] called the meeting. He called Samuel Susser and Mike Shaw and (asked them to call) a meeting, that’s what I was told. I had no idea about the invitation list…but it was absolutely on purpose that (TAMU) Corpus Christi was not represented,” Skrobarcyzk said.
Attempts to reach Susser and Shaw have so far been unsuccessful. Shaw owns numerous car dealerships in the area. Susser, listed as an investor in the meeting notes, is a former convenience store developer. In 2015, he sold his holdings company, which operated 650 Stripes stores, to Sunoco LP. The chain of stores generated billions of dollars in revenues.
Susser and Shaw were not the only prominent Texas businessmen who joined Sharp and Tallant at the October meeting. A banker, a beer distributor and several real estate developers and construction contractors were present. (See next week’s South Texan for more details.)
As for Skrobarcyzk, he doubts he’ll be doing much business with Texas A&M anytime soon.
“I’ll never be able to work in this town again, but who cares? What they were doing was morally wrong,” he said.