There wasn’t an inch of space available in Ballinger’s City Hall at the council meeting on Sept. 9. It was standing room only, and some of the people were standing two rows deep along the walls. It’s estimated that about 150 citizens attended the meeting.
The last few weeks in Ballinger have been as turbulent as any time span in recent memory. It started a few weeks ago when rumors of a handful of employees with complaints against Ballinger city manager Tommy Turney started surfacing. On Sept. 3 the council went into executive session to listen to the employees’ complaints. The employees were called in, one-by-one, to the closed session and gave an accounting of their complaints against Turney to the council.
The attendees included Ginger Turner, Margaret Watkins, Lance Gallant, Vickie Stokes, Jeff Smith, Elaine Paske, Joyce Waterfill, Mary Anderson, Clyde Kresta, Bud Young, Cathy House, Jack Watkins, Kathy House, Jennie Fulton, Rick Sonnenberg, Brett Willborn Jr., Joe Lopez, Chad Hardy, Laura Gonzalez and many more. Over 30 citizens stood up and directly addressed the council.
The majority of the attendees were on the side of Turney and spoke out in support of him and all that he’s accomplished since he was hired as Ballinger’s city manager. Hamstringing the council as far as discipline were rumors that the mayor, Sam Mallory, and one councilman had met secretly with employees to build a case against Turney over several months. The main question was if certain members of the city council knew about complaints against Turney and didn’t do anything except tell the employees to continue writing their complaints down, was that ethical? If a supervisor knows that a subordinate is alleged to have done something wrong, is he not supposed to address it immediately and take action, if any action is warranted?
Another issue with the citizens was that in the executive session on Sept. 2 the council only listened to employees with complaints and didn’t listen to both sides of the argument. Another concern was the way the executive session was handled, in that police chief Stan Maresch was allowed in the executive session when it was allegedly only supposed to be the employees on the agenda and the council in there according to Texas Open Meetings Act and Texas Municipal League (TML). Allegedly, some employees not on the agenda were allowed in there to speak to the council. At the open meeting prior to that executive session there were dozens of people in attendance and many of them stayed out on the city hall lawn while the executive session was going on. As the session dragged on beyond 10 p.m., Ginger Turner bought pizza and bottles of water for those staying the course. The meeting ended at 11:30 p.m. and the council exited the building without comment. They didn’t call everyone back in to adjourn the meeting because they didn’t take any action.
The word about the problems had spread throughout the town over the last eight days, particularly through social media. Then it was said by councilman Bob McDaniel that city attorney Pat Chesser had said that if the city wasn’t going to fire Turney, that they needed to remove it from the agenda. According to McDaniel, “Chesser just called (one or more council members) in an attempt to control things. He said if we're not going to fire Tommy then we need to omit that part of the agenda.” According to the Texas Open Meetings Act, “Notice must be posted for a minimum length of time before each meeting. Section 551.043(a) states the general time requirement as follows: The notice of a meeting of a governmental body must be posted in a place readily accessible to the general public at all times for at least 72 hours before the scheduled time of the meeting, except as provided by Sections 551.044–551.046.” The council, according to this law, could not have removed Turney’s evaluation from the agenda.
The council meeting on Sept. 9 started off with questions and comments regarding the city hiking up the tax rate. Many were concerned that with the Tax Appraisal District’s significant increase in property valuations, this would just be taking more money out of citizen’s pockets. But it’s clear that the city’s budget is in need of a great deal of attention. The budget was in poor shape when Turney took over. The previous city manager had cashed out $360,000 in 3 CDs to cover expenses from a $225,000.00 grant, capital projects and other operations. The money from the CDs was used to show that the budget was in the black, when, without those CDs, the budget would have supposedly been in the red. The $225,000 that the city was paid back through the grant was also spent, but CPA Gayla Fullerton told city council that CDs were considered, “cash on hand,” at a council meeting earlier this year.
The emotions were high and the tension in the council chamber was palatable on Sept. 9, with many chomping at the bit to address the council over Turney. The number of people who spoke in favor of Turney far outweighed the number of those who spoke against him. One very emotional speaker, Kathy House, is a Girl Scout leader and spoke to the council about Turney helping them get the Scout Hut in order, “I talked to Tommy about repairing the Scout Hut. The hut had been so overrun by rodents and damage that we couldn’t have meetings there. Tommy came along and fixed it up with the help of Rotary.”
House said that she spent 5 or 6 years asking for help from the previous city manager and others and didn’t receive anything other than promises, “Tommy came along and worked on it. We just had our first meeting there in 10 years.” Not only did Turney help fix up the Scout Hut, the community came out to help, including councilmen Jason Gore and Rick Morrish. Turney also had a hot water heater installed so that they could have hot water.
Many of the attendees wanted to know exactly what the complaints against Turney were but city attorney Pat Chesser said that the council had to respect the privacy of their employees. He was asked about his role and said, “My responsibility of concern is only for the liability of the city.” Another question that came up was the legality of a city employee secretly recording his conversations with Turney. At least one of these recordings is alleged to have been played at the executive session on Sept. 2. Chesser said that recording the conversation was legal and said that it was considered “one-sided consent,” which isn’t against Texas law.
KRUN general manager Jeff Smith spoke out in support of Turney. He asked McDaniel if Mallory had picked him up and taken him to “the cross” and spent 3 hours asking him to “dig up dirt” on Turney, with Turney’s former employers in Saudi Arabia. McDaniel said that it did happen and it was on “June 29th, 2019”. Mallory said that he did meet with McDaniel and asked him to look into Turney’s time in Saudi Arabia but it was more of a background check than “digging up dirt.”
The heat was turned up when Chad Hardy addressed the mayor directly over Mallory’s Certified Pool Operator Contract with the city, which he had for two years. According to the city charter: Section 17.03. Personal interest. No officer or employee of the City of Ballinger shall have a financial interest, direct or indirect, in any contract with the City of Ballinger, or be financially interested, directly or indirectly, in the sale to or by the City of Ballinger of any land, except on behalf of the City of Ballinger as an officer or employee. Any willful violation of this section shall constitute malfeasance in office, and any officer or employee guilty thereof shall forfeit his office or position. Any officer or employee of the City of Ballinger who shall willfully or knowingly divert or use any funds arising from the issuance of any bonds or sinking fund for any other purpose than that for which the fund is created or as herein otherwise authorized, shall be subject to prosecution as provided by the Laws of the State of Texas on the diversion and conversion of funds belonging to any of the municipalities of the State of Texas.
According to the council minutes from that council meeting, Mallory did complete and file a conflict of interest form with TML. He removed himself from that city council meeting so that the council could vote on awarding his LLC the contract. Hardy and Smith then said that the mayor and former city manager Bryan Grimes had attended the pool operator training that was paid for by the city. Smith said that this was a few months before the bid ever went out and said that the bid request was never placed in the newspaper, which Smith said is a legal requirement. Smith said that the contract paid Mallory over $20,000 over two years and contended that the city paying for his course and to attend training was improper. Hardy alleged that Mallory didn’t even do the work himself, that he had a city employee do it. There was a signed affidavit by a city employee, Claude Johnson, that says that he did much of the work on city time. Hardy said that Mallory needed to resign, alleging that his actions violated the city charter. Mallory didn’t resign as he explained what had transpired with the awarding of the contract to his LLC. Hardy has a petition going around to have Mallory recalled as mayor.
When the smoke cleared and after a prayer the council and the citizens got back to work with Turney’s evaluation. Prior to the meeting it was said that the city council would go into executive session but, according to the Open Meetings Act, the meeting had to be open to the public if requested by Turney, since he was the subject of the meeting. A letter from the Assistant General Council of the TML, Zindia T. Thomas, said that it was indeed up to Turney and if he wanted the meeting to be open then it must be open. Turney asked that the meeting be open and so it was held openly. A motion was made to consider Turney’s employment, with McDaniel requesting a vote from each council member. All five council members, Gore, Goetz, Morrish, McDaniel and Mallory voted 5-0 in favor of keeping Turney as the city manager. Goetz said that while she voted in favor of retaining Turney, she felt that he should be written up and that he should go to some HR training. She said that she was not aware of the complaints until she was “blindsided” by them at the council meeting. Gore agreed with her and said that there wasn’t anything that happened that the council couldn’t address. Morrish said that although he wasn’t in favor of hiring Turney to begin with, that he had supported Turney the entire way.
After the vote, Turney addressed the citizens and said that he was overcome by the show of support from the community. He also said that he owed everyone a debt of gratitude.
The last 12 months have been hectic in Ballinger, from the CD/funds investigation by the Rangers and FBI to the Ballinger ISD investigation and subsequent charges to the employee complaints against Turney and now the CPO – certified pool operator contract with Mallory. Now the city council and Turney are moving forward and have asked for unity within the community. There are still rumors of a Texas Rangers investigation, this time against Turney and filed by some city employees. At this time, it’s unclear what the allegations might be about.