Three months after she took office, Bexar County Commissioner Trish DeBerry (Pct. 3) has scaled back her role at the company that bears her name.
DeBerry, who founded The DeBerry Group public relations firm 10 years ago, has vacated her CEO position as the company’s former chief operating officer and executive vice president, Anamaria Suescun-Fast, steps in.
“As an entrepreneur, as a boss, it’s kind of my proudest moment that I can kind of take a step back and I can hand over the reins,” DeBerry said.
The company – which also does creative work, digital marketing, and social media – also will be renamed talkStrategy. The company announced its name change and new leadership earlier in April.
The moves come after DeBerry faced criticism, during her campaign and since winning the Precinct 3 seat in November, that her public relations work for public entities such as San Antonio Water System created a conflict of interest with her elected office.
As part of the transition, DeBerry said she will refrain from working on any government projects that talkStrategy may take on. Her decreased workload at the company will also allow her to spend more time on her work as county commissioner, she added.
“I will still work very closely on private-sector work,” DeBerry said. “We do a lot of crisis communications work around the states. So [the transition] offers me the opportunity to still stay involved in the business, but it offers me a lot more flexibility as far as time and energy at the county.”
“In terms of public-sector accounts, the talkStrategy team – led by me – will continue to work on current and future public-sector clients,” Suescun-Fast said in an email. “Trish may support public-sector clients beyond Bexar County. Her limited partnership also means that she has reduced her financial participation (salary) in the company to align with the new organizational structure.”
The communications firm does not have any current contracts with Bexar County, county spokeswoman Monica Ramos confirmed.
Larry Roberson, the civil division chief at the district attorney’s office, said that DeBerry has asked him to review any cases that might result in a conflict of interest from her presence on commissioners court. So far, none have.
Bexar County follows guidelines set by Texas law when it comes to determining conflict of interest, Roberson said. The Texas Local Government Code requires elected officials with a “substantial interest in a business entity or real property” to file an affidavit explaining the interest and to recuse themselves from a vote.
Substantial interest is also defined by Texas law by either how much of a business an individual owns or by familial relationship. But being a county commissioner does not mean your business cannot work with Bexar County, Roberson said.
“Even if there is a conflict, all they have to do is file an affidavit and abstain from participation in consideration,” he said. “That’s it.”
Though the City of San Antonio has a separate code of ethics in place, Bexar County serves as an arm of the state and must follow Texas law, Roberson said.
“Texas counties don’t have the same kind of ethics programs or requirements that some cities do,” Roberson said. “We do follow state law and we try to err on the side of caution. If there’s the potential for conflict we would likely advise that [filing] an affidavit would be better.”
As a limited partner, DeBerry will no longer hold a majority equity stake in talkStrategy, the commissioner said. And with Suescun-Fast serving as CEO, DeBerry is no longer responsible for the day-to-day operations of the company.
When DeBerry took her oath of office in January, she told reporters she would remain a part of her business while serving as county commissioner. She pledged then to “transition” her role in the company.
“Rest assured, I have built a business and also a reputation on being a very moral and a very ethical person, especially when it comes to business,” she said in January. “I think the strategy that I have in place regarding the business will give that firewall of separation between me and the business and allowing the business to continue to handle [City of San Antonio] contracts.”
Suescun-Fast, who has worked with DeBerry for 20 years and been part of the organization since its inception, said the transition had been in the works for a long time.
“She has asked me before to do this kind of partnership and for whatever reason I was like, ‘No, not yet, I’m just happy where I am,’” she said. “And so this is really just the next step in that evolution [of our agency] and where we’re going. … This just made complete sense. Timing is everything.”