Allyson Crenshaw was elected mayor of Robert Lee in 2018 and with less than a year in office is under investigation for misuse of city funds. In the May 2018 election, Crenshaw with 97 votes, beat out challengers Shell Williams and Leroy Casey who had 64 and 48 votes each, respectively. The Robert Lee city council had other new members elected in May of 2018 when Crenshaw was elected. A new city secretary, Crystal Blevins, had also been appointed. The previous city secretary had been removed by the city council and was subsequently investigated by the Coke County Sheriff’s Office. A charge of “Abuse of Official Capacity” was reportedly handed down by the grand jury with the case resolved with deferred adjudication. The city also added a new city superintendent, Billy Williams, who had previously served on the city council, completing a changing-of-the-guard.
It was revealed at the city council meeting on January 14th, 2019, “as of January 7th, 2019, the city secretary had not received invoices for over $10,000 worth of purchases made an individual’s personal Amazon account.” The individual was later revealed to be mayor Crenshaw. It was also stated that the missing funds issue was first noticed in December of 2018 when Crenshaw paid her personal electric bill with a debit card. It wasn’t up until that point that the city council says that they were aware of any City debit cards.
The city has said that they have not been reimbursed for all of the purchases charged by the mayor to her personal account. The Coke County sheriff’s Office did not begin an investigation at that time but has since initiated an investigation.
It was reported that at the January 29th council meeting, a motion was made by Mayor Pro Tem Roger Alexander to restrict Crenshaw from city hall except for the lobby area during working hours. Then at a special city council meeting on February 4th, 2019, the council went into executive session. Blevins and Williams were not included in the session. City Attorney Jeff Betty was not present. A strange twist was added to the entire situation when council members Roger Alexander and Janie Munoz exited the executive session and stated that they were resigning from the city council, effective immediately. To add another chapter to the bizarre situation that seemed to be spiraling out of control, the remaining council members went back into executive session. This allegedly is a violation of the Open Meetings Act as the session continued for approximately 3 hours.
Former councilman Alexander wrote an open letter to the Obeserver/Enterprise newspaper in Coke County that was published on February 8th. In the letter he outlined issues that city council had regarding their spending and accounts. Alexander writes, in part, “As of today, January 28, 2019, there are debit card charges that were not approved or voted on by City Council. The total of these charges is as follows:
• General Fund $44,427.46
• Water Fund $31,419.39
• Sewer Fund $33,584.16
There has been no procedure to report to City Council funds deducted from City bank accounts due to debit card charges. In other words, whether by ignorance or design the City Council has not been able to exercise their duty to watch over the money of the citizens of Robert Lee.”
Alexander also states in his letter to the Observer/Enterprise, “1. In August 2018 the Mayor’s personal electric bill was PAID from the City General Fund Bank Account. This was brought to the Mayor’s attention in early December 2018. She repaid the City for this and 15 other charges in January 2019. The Mayor, through a letter to Council that was not dated or signed, stated that she discovered the problem with the City debit card in September. However she did not repay the City until after the Auditor advised her of the problem. Then it was about two weeks after she was notified that she repaid the City for her electric bill.
2. On October 20, 2018, a purchase was made of voice recognition software, microphone, and a scanner from Best Buy for $676.93. As far as staff knows this is not being used at City Hall. This was never discussed or approved by Council.
3. On June 21, 2018, a smartwatch (sic) and accessories was (sic) purchased from Amazon.com for $735.95. The Mayor states that she returned it within 30 days and the credit should be on the Bank Statement. The credits that were found on the Bank Statement are $71.34 on July 5, $196.00 on July 18, and $75.72 on July 19. We do not have receipts for these so we do not know if they are related to the smart watch purchase or not. This was never discussed or approved by City Council. Due to City Staff being aware on these irregularities, tensions have arisen between the Mayor and City Staff. Prior to the Council Meeting of January 14, 2019, the Mayor met with the City Attorney Jeff Betty and Mayor Pro Tem Roger Alexander. The City Attorney advised the Mayor that she should turn in all City equipment and only be at City Hall during normal business hours until the debit card problems could be investigated. The Mayor agreed to this arrangement.” With Alexander being the Mayor Pro Tem at the time he resigned, Brandi Brosh was appointed to fill the position.
Crenshaw gave a statement to the Observer-Enterprise explaining, in her own words, what had happened. In the statement Crenshaw said that the Robert Lee city debit card was unknowingly set to her personal digital Amazon orders on August 6th, 2018. Crenshaw says that it was switched to her personal card on September 18th. Her statement says that she didn’t know about this until December. Another charge she addresses is an electric bill of approximately $250. She blamed that one on Amazon Alexa’s home automation system. According to the records there were 15 orders over $100 that had been charged to the card. According to the council, Crenshaw also violated policy by purchasing Christmas bags for the city staff, using city funds.
Robert Lee has had a myriad of issues in recent history concerning the governing of the city. An Observer-Enterprise report says that the city has yet to pay a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality fine from 2017. The fine total is $27,125 with $5,425 of that deferred.
Another issue reported in the Observer-Enterprise is the city’s water usage. Robert Lee has an agreement with Bronte to get 200,000 gallons of water per day. Bronte has now said that there will be a 50% increase in rate for water used over $200,000 gallons per day beginning in May. Reportedly, Robert Lee is attempting to get that rate lowered to 25%.
Ballinger is fortunate in that our previous city councils and current council have had the foresight to prepare for Ballinger’s water supply future with the recent water deal with Abilene. The demand for water will only get greater as time goes on and as it becomes more precious, the resources will become more limited. Cities without water deals in place face a challenging future.
Robert Lee’s city infrastructure is facing more challenges according to another Observer-Enterprise article. There are several streets that need resurfacing. It’s been stated that grants for smaller cities to get their roads repaired are no long available and that it would cost around $100,000 just to get 2 blocks resurfaced. Ballinger’s city manager, Tommy Turney, has seen to that issue for Ballinger by applying for grants to resurface many of the roads in the city and has hired a grant administrator company to apply for more grants.
The filing period for the upcoming elections in Robert Lee in May expired on February 15th. There will be 4 city council seats to be filled and a special election for the position held by Ann Hedges who was appointed when Williams resigned to become the city superintendent.
The Robert Lee City Council made some changes, much as Ballinger recently did regarding bookkeeping and controls. Some of the requested actions brought up in city council include creating a bank account with $5000 from the city’s general fund for 3 debit cards; Restricting checks from being written out of that account; Robert Lee superintendent Billy Williams will control one of the cards; the 2 other cards will remain at city hall but can be checked out for use and must be returned immediately after purchases; all other city bank account cards would be cancelled after the creation of the new account.
It’s been proving time and time again that a lack of controls and poor bookkeeping at any level of city operations will come back to haunt the city. Ultimately it’s the taxpayers’ money that is wasted in one way or the other. In the case of Robert Lee, even if the $10,000 is recovered and there are never any charges filed, there will still be the expense of several thousand dollars to have a forensic audit completed. Ballinger paid $9,000 alone just for a review of their internal controls, which was not even an audit. Robert Lee will also foot the bill for all of the hours the city employees devote to investigating the situation. The investigation by the sheriff’s office will also come out of the citizens’ pockets and not just in Robert Lee, but from the county residents as well, since that is who pays the costs of the sheriff’s department. Then there is the issue of the Texas Rangers. If the Rangers investigate that is money that will come out of the pockets of all Texans being that the Department of Public Safety is funded by our tax dollars. One dollar spent on an investigation, at any level, is a dollar that didn’t go to their streets or other infrastructure. With water resources becoming a problem and the streets in Robert Lee plagued with potholes, spending several thousand dollars on this will have a far-reaching impact, perhaps most apparently in the worthwhile projects that the money could have gone to.
No matter which way you look at it, Robert Lee faces some significant challenges in the near future. The city must overcome whatever damage has been done due to the city finances, pay a TCEQ fine, work on a new water deal and work to get their roads needed repairs.