The September 23rd Ballinger City Council meeting played to a packed room. The wall-to-wall attendees showed up to hear grievances by city employees and hear what the final verdict would be on city manager Tommy Turney. Emotions were in full swing even before the city council meeting convened, with people out in front of city hall discussing their opinions on what would happen once the council meeting convened.
Turney was hired as city manager in August of 2018. He came into the position with a budget that was already set by the council for FY2019. The city had been suffering from financial issues, including not having financial reserves. The CD money that the city had in reserve had been spent to cover capital projects beginning back in 2015. The CDs were cashed out on September 22nd, 2015 and the money put into the general fund. A $225,000 grant repayment was used to fund capital projects as well. Former manager Tommy New addressed the city council several months ago and said that after he left office and when former city manager Bryan Grimes took over, Grimes and the city used the CD money to balance the budget. CPA Gayla Fullerton said that CDs were treated as cash on hand. This has been hashed out for months. There were 2 CDs left by they had loans against them and were not available should the city have an emergency. Having that CD money and grant repayment money available made it possible for the city, which was actually losing money in some projects and might have been in the red some years, to appear to be in the black with a balanced budget that in actuality was using financial reserves.
With all of this going on for the last few years, and the CD and reserves coming up on October 5th, 2018, the council meetings still only had a handful of people attend the meetings. Turney looked into the funds an accounted for them. Gayla Fullerton performed a review of the city’s controls and made suggestions in February of this year, just as she had in June of 2018. Turney went about his business and made several accomplishments. The most recent accomplishment was this past week when the city received a $500,000 grant for 2 new fire trucks.
Clouding the issue were disgruntled employees who made several allegations about Turney cursing or outright violating law. No proof was presented but Turney did admit his language was gruff and that he had made some mistakes. One employee, Core Van Zandt, had recorded a conversation he had with Turney, without Turney’s knowledge. This is not illegal in Texas but it was mentioned in this council meeting.
A month ago, after a heated council meeting attended by over 150 people, the council voted unanimously 5-0 to retain Turney. Tommy said in an interview that just a few days after that meeting, councilman Rick Morrish went to his office and asked him to resign. According to Turney, Morrish felt Turney had lost credibility. Turney declined to resign. Morrish, along with Bob McDaniel, met with unhappy employees at the house of one of the employees. Morrish defended this openly in council by saying that he would always meeting with city employees if they want to talk to him about anything. There wouldn’t seem to be a reason for a councilman not to meet with an employee who has a complaint about an officer of the city.
Then, add in the Certified Pool Operator (CPO) Contract that mayor Sam Mallory had at one time. It was awarded by the council a few years ago and Mallory recused himself from that council meeting where they voted to give him the contract. The is concern over allegations that Mallory attended the CPO training at city expense prior to the contract ever going up for bid. This came up at that heated council meeting and Chad Hardy, who is running for council against Morrish, asked Mallory to resign, citing malfeasance. In the city charter, it expressly forbids this under chapter 17:
“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 Texas Municipal League, Mallory filed the appropriate “conflict of interest” form and under TML, he was legally able to hold the CPO contract. The city charter doesn’t have any caveat for any public official to have financial interest in any contract with the city. The legality is up the council or other law enforcement to consider if they so desire.
Add this to the financial situation, the employee grievances, the emotional council meetings, the significantly increased tax valuations and the budget and you have a perfect storm of turmoil.
People have spoken up in favor of the aggrieved employees while others have supported Turney. People have blamed Mallory for financial issues while others have praised him for his leadership.
The majority of the people seemed to just want to find some kind of resolution and let Ballinger get back to being Ballinger but there have been a select few on each of the issues that have drawn hard lines in the sand.
The September 23rd council meeting had 1 item, other than allowing citizens to address the council, on the agenda; “The Ballinger City Council may meet in Executive Session as authorized by Texas Government Code, section 551.074, Personnel Matters (Council reprimand for City Manager.)
The aggrieved employees addressed the council openly with their grievances prior to the Executive Session. The last time that they addressed the council was in Executive Session a couple of weeks ago and those concerns were not released to the public. This time the employees spoke publicly about the letters that they wrote to the council. Others in attendance spoke as well. People spoke up on both sides but in the end the only thing that the council could do, per the agenda, is consider the reprimand for Turney.
After the general session everyone was told to leave the city chambers so that the council could go into Executive Session. People gathered in front of the city hall where the emotions were still running hot. Jeff Smith of KRUN radio was confronted by one angry woman who accused him of spreading false information about her husband and others. Smith told her that she was referencing a conversation where he wasn’t talking about her husband. But emotions were understandably running high.
Fallen Busenlehner addressed me and said that the newspaper only took selected numbers from the paper regarding the city financial position that she or her husband prepared at the previous tax rate hearing. The papers, which are being uploaded to the documents on the Facebook page, did not give a complete picture of city finances according to Turney. I discussed this with Turney who agreed with one part of the figures but not all of it. There was no other documentation regarding how the numbers were calculated. There was a page of unnecessary expenses such as the plaza fountain and scout hut but those numbers were not correct, according to Turney. As previously reported, Dorothy Dankworth generously donated $5,000 for the plaza fountain so the figure did not mention that donation. The scout hut received money and a grant from Ballinger Rotary, and that was not reflected in the numbers. There were many more conversations with people gathered up in groups depending on which side of any given issue they were on.
Fund View cost the city almost $40,000 but this was a program that the city bought to help with the bookkeeping, track projects and have quicker access to all city financial documents. This was something suggested by Fullerton and was desperately needed for a city that was still using handwritten timesheets and archaic bookkeeping methods.
After the Executive Session the council called everyone back in and councilwoman Kristi Goetz said that the council had agreed to reprimand him for his language, send him to some sort of HR training, create a fine tuned grievance process for employees and to hold Turney accountable regarding following policies and procedures, particularly when it comes to personnel issues. At the meeting, councilman Bob McDaniel alluded to the fact that some disgruntled employees were refusing to do their jobs.
People left the council chambers after the meeting was adjourned and many gathered again in front of city hall. There was the expected disappointment from some and elation from others. Most seemed just ready to move on and hopefully not have something drag this back up again.
If Turney’s punishment and the grievances are indeed settled, then the city can move on to worrying about getting the finances under control. Turney will have no excuses if he fails. He’s been here a year and while he was burdened with the previous budget that was passed prior to his arrival, he has control over this budget.
The future of Ballinger is fully in his hands and the hands of the council. The council will hold Turney accountable and the people of Ballinger will hold the council accountable. Interest in city business is at an all-time high and while it will wane somewhat in the wake of the settling of the grievances and budget, people should still attend the council meetings and keep informed on what is going on in their town.
One sentiment that was expressed by the majority of those who attended all of the recent meetings is that the city council did great work, made the best decisions possible and performed well under the extreme stress of the various situations. Council members make a mere $20 per month and they earned that over the last few weeks.
Elections are coming up and don’t forget that there are the propositions to be voted on. They have all been printed in the newspaper but we’ll go into greater detail on a few of them in upcoming editions of the newspaper. There will also be a full budget story in the newspaper next week.