West U council drama: Absent Burke says she has fled after threats — but won’t resign

April 9, 2018

By Ken Fountain

West University Place City Council meetings aren’t generally known for attracting spillover crowds and television cameras, but both were on display Monday evening. The main draw, however, was a no-show.

Councilwoman Kellye Burke, who set off a firestorm of criticism and caused a highly unusual national (even international) spotlight to beam on the small enclave during a March 31 incident in which she confronted a young female supporter of President Trump and other teens at an area cookie store, was not present when councilmembers took their seats behind the shoehorn.

Burke, 50, first elected to council last year, has been charged with disorderly conduct, a Class C misdemeanor, for allegedly launching a verbal attack on the four girls buying cookies at Tiny’s Milk & Cookies, apparently triggered by one of the girls wearing a Trump T-shirt.

She reportedly yelled, “grab her by the p#$$y, girls!” (referring to an audio recording of Trump, made by the TV show Access Hollywood in 2005 and which became public shortly before the 2016 election) and “MAGA, MAGA!” (Make America Great Again, Trump’s campaign slogan).

When the family of one of the girls posted about the event on social media, the news went viral and rebounded through the political echo chambers. News outlets around the country and even abroad have reported on the furor.

After the council returned from an already-planned executive session (dealing with the installation of a “virtual gate” security camera system around the city), Mayor Susan Sample said in her “Mayor’s Statement” that although Burke’s reported comments were not condoned by either herself, the other council members or the city, there was no provision under the city’s charter that would allow the council to remove or otherwise sanction a sitting council member.

“We’re all independently elected,” Sample noted. (After the meeting, she told a reporter that the only way to remove Burke would be through a recall vote, which would require a petition under state law.)

Sample said she has repeatedly reached out to Burke asking about her intentions but received no reply. She later told a reporter that she was giving Burke “space” to come to her own decision about her political future.

During the public comments session of Monday’s meeting, Christopher Downey, a Houston attorney representing Burke (she had initially retained the very high-profile attorney Rusty Hardin) read a prepared statement from her. In it, she explained that she had been advised not to attend the meeting (she didn’t specify by whom) because of security concerns over the charged atmosphere. (Later, West U City Manager Chris Peifer told Instant News that the recommendation had not come from the police department.)

Burke said through an attorney she would not resign. (File photo)

Downey said the response included vociferously negative emails and social media comments —  and even death threats that had forced her to “flee” her home.

In the statement read by Downey, Burke said she immediately regretted her words during the incident and tried reaching out to the families of all of the girls involved, and that one family had responded and accepted her apology. Burke said she has continued to reach out to all of the parties to apologize, to no avail.

“I’ve made every effort to sincerely apologize in person. I was born and raised in Goliad,Texas, the daughter of two loving parents who expected to work hard, be joyful in hard times and do right by God,” Burke said in the statement. “I’ve done my best to live up to that standard of grace, but sometimes I make mistakes. And when that happens, as my parents would say, I take my lumps by acknowledging that hurt and doing my best to make amends.”

Burke said she believes her remarks were in bad taste but that when weighed against her community service both before and during her time on council, she has no plans to resign. A 12-year West University resident and business consultant, she is well-known for her gun control advocacy with Moms Demand Action, on whose behalf she has lobbied at the Texas Legislature.

Besides Downey, several speakers spoke on behalf of and against Burke.

Ranae Scheibner, a longtime friend of Burke’s, said, “She’s a hardworking, highly educated, energetic woman who won her seat on City Council because she’s good for West U. Neighbors, she is one of us.

“She’s not a person who would attack or assault anyone. She made a mistake. She does not deserve the harsh treatment that people are handing out.”

Scheinber said the stories of the incident had been one-sided and exacerbated by social media. “It’s tearing our community apart.”

Many of the comments, including calls for Burke to resign, she said, had originated outside of West University. “West U residents need to decide what happens in West U,” she said. “Kellye Burke may have made a mistake, but she is still a city councilwoman we can be proud of.”

Anne Furse, another friend of Burke’s, lauded her for her volunteer work and advocacy and her work on council on flood control and other issues.

“Kellye made a mistake, but she is a warm and energetic great mom to two kids, a smart and enthusiastic community volunteer. She does not deserve this,” she said.

Therese Tusa, a retired West University Elementary School teacher and Houston resident wearing a blue “Trump: Make America Great Again” shirt, said she participated in a rally for Trump in 2016 where she was “verbally and physically” accosted by a young man who asked her why she, a woman, would support Trump.

“The experience was extremely frightening and traumatizing,” she said. She said the incident involving Burke and the young girls reminded her of that incident.

“I’m an adult and I can take care of myself,” Tusa said,

“But I cannot imagine the fear experienced by these young girls buying cookies at the cookie shop being verbally assaulted by an adult, not knowing to what extent the woman’s anger might reach.”

Tusa ended her remarks by calling on Burke to resign.

Courtney Bucy, who said she voted for Burke, said she was “beyond disappointed” when she read the news about the councilwoman’s comments, including her public statements of apology.

“At the end of the day, we elect our officials because we trust your judgement, we think you’re going to be accountable for your actions, and that you’re going to listen to your constituents. She has exhibited beyond reproach any sort of horrible judgment I have seen. I don’t want to see a community that is tolerant of intolerance, and that’s happened that day,” she said.

Bucy reprimanded Burke both for her “non-apology” and for not attending the meeting to hear from her constituents.

“She made a grievous error, and she needs to be held accountable,” she said. “If she doesn’t step down, she is sending the message that it is OK.”

Following the public comments portion, the meeting shifted to more prosaic matters involving providing guidance to the planning and zoning commission on the development of townhomes and “fence-like hedges” and preparations for a new City Charter Committee, which is mandated this year.

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