Last month Barrett Smith, who was the Streets Department supervisor for the City of Ballinger, helped the city by facilitating the deal to sell some equipment. After it was all said and done, the city made approximately $100,000 on the sale. At the time Smith was lauded by city manager Buck LaQuey and mayor Dawni Seymore for facilitating the deal as the city continues to work its way out of a poor financial situation.
Two weeks ago Smith was demoted then fired this week for an incident that occurred a month it. The incident involved Smith taking out his pistol to show a coworker. The discipline didn’t come down until almost a month after the incident and it appears that he was punished twice for the same incident, although, according to Smith, city manager Buck LaQuey didn’t tell him why he was being fired.
Smith explained what happened on that day, “Sam (Batts) and I were in the Quonset building and we were talking about .40 caliber guns. I have a CHL and pulled out my gun and showed him. I kept the magazine with the bullets in my pocket while I was showing him my pistol.” A month after the incident Smith said that someone complained to LaQuey about his showing his pistol and alleged that he threatened his coworker. Smith said the person who allegedly made the complaint about him showing his pistol wasn’t Sam Batts, and allegedly wasn’t even there when he showed his gun to Batts, “The other guys were standing 20’ away working on cardboard. The only 2 people there were me and Sam. “The guy complained based purely on hear-say to get back at me for turning him in.””
Smith says that he believes that the person who made the complaint had a grudge against him for turning him in to the city manager for insubordination and safety violations. This happened over a month ago, but he was fired on Wednesday, February 26th. Smith says that city manager Buck LaQuey originally called him in and told him, ‘You’re being accused of pulling your weapon and threatening an employee.’ I told him that I’d never pull my gun and threaten anyone. That was the extent of my input. That was it, that was the last time I heard anything until they demoted me. Then the next week they fired me.”
Smith was demoted on or about February 19th and alleges that when he was demoted LaQuey also wanted him to sign a “gag order” or face termination to prevent him from going to city council, “He said that he didn’t want me going over his head to the council and told me that he’d fire me if I did. He threatened to fire me 3 times if I went over his head.”
Smith says that he was demoted to “driver” but retained his pay rate and was placed on a 90-day probation. Smith says that LaQuey never asked him anything else about the incident before he demoted him. Smith alleges that LaQuey told him, ‘I consider us friends so I’m going to let you keep your job.’ Then he told me, ‘Shut up, my word is final.’ I’ve never been written up during my career with the city. I don’t have any marks against me.”
Smith said that LaQuey threatened to fire him on another occasion, not related to the alleged gun incident, “I was talking to a friend about purchasing some sucker rod for the city to build a fence with. Buck asked me for my friend’s phone number and I refused to give it to him because he’s my personal friend. Buck said that if I didn’t give him the phone number that he would fire me.”
On the day Smith was demoted he said that he felt like he was being bullied, “Buck told me to take the offer (demotion) or lose my job. He said that he wasn’t going to discuss it. He told me, ‘Shut up, my word is final.’ I believe that a person has a right to defend himself. He never questioned me to get my side of it and he never even questioned one of the other guys who were breaking down the cardboard. This didn’t even come from Sam. It came from a guy who wasn’t even out there in the area and who only heard about me showing my gun to Sam. It was based purely on hear-say.”
According to Smith, Ballinger police chief Stan Maresch was called in regarding the incident and said that there were no charges to be filed, “Stan (Maresch) investigated and said that there were no charges to be filed because Sam Batts didn’t complain and said that there wasn’t anything to file.” Smith said that he talked to city councilwoman Kristi Goetz as well, “I talked to Kristi. It was a 5-10 minute conversation. Later, Buck called me in and threatened to fire me if I didn’t sign the gag order, ‘If you talk to the council, it’s like going over my head and I’ll fire you.’ When Tommy was here (former city manager Tommy Turney) we could talk to the city council if we had a problem. Now they’re saying that we can’t go to the council and that the new employee handbook says that there are different procedures.” Smith said that he believes that the demotion was a preface to firing him, “He demoted me one week and then he fired me the next week. If I was a supervisor, firing me would have gone to the council so he demoted me then fired me. I was punished twice for the same incident.”
When he was called in and fired on February 26th, Smith says that LaQuey didn’t tell him why he was being fired, “He (LaQuey) called me in and asked for my keys. He said that he was firing me. I asked him why he was firing me and he said, ‘If you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you.’ That was it so I left.”
One issue Smith says that this parallels is the fact that with the Ballinger employee illegal credit card and Amazon abuse, the city has chosen not to pursue those charges, “The city says that was the culture that had been created at the time. Tommy (Turney) encouraged us to carry our weapons. He even scheduled CHL classes and paid half the cost. He created that culture.” The city has also hired back an employee who was part of the credit card and Amazon abuse allegations.
Late in 2019 several employees filed grievances against Turney and were allowed to address the council and not limited to a specific amount of time. The city employee handbook has been undergoing changes but it’s not known if it has been accepted yet or must go through council approval. The current personnel handbook available online through the City of Ballinger website says that it was adopted in 1988. Section 4.02(4) of the handbook states: If the employee does not agree with the City Administrator’s determination, the employee may appeal his/her case to the City Council through a written appeal, which must be submitted no later than ten (10) days after the determination is made by the City Administrator. In all cases, the City Council’s decision is final.
Smith’s brother, Jeff Smith, is the general manager of KRUN radio and a city councilman. He commented on the issue of Smith’s discipline, “Those city employees know more about this than the city council does and that’s not right.”
In a video taped conversation provided to the newspaper, by the person who took the video, Batts and the person discuss the incident with the pistol. In the video, Batts says, “He did pull the gun. I said that he did pull his gun out of the holster.” The other person in the video asks Batts if Smith pointed the gun at him, “He pointed it in the general direction down through the Quonset building. That’s what I said. He pointed it down like toward the Quonset building. I couldn’t even tell you what the pistol looked like it’s been so far back. But, It wasn’t me that made the big deal out of it, it was 2 other guys I work with that made a big friggin’ deal out of it.”
The second person in the video then says, “You should have told them that you didn’t have a problem with it,” to which Batts responds, “I did. I told the city administrator. I said, ‘Man, if anybody should have reported it, it should have been me’, but I didn’t feel threatened over it.’ I said that it bothered me but I didn’t feel threatened on it. Batts then says, “Me and the city administrator got into a big ol’ argument over it.”
In the video Batts also says he didn’t consider it serious or threatening, “We were just playing around. He pulled it out. He didn’t pull it out in anger, we were just messing around. It was those 2 other guys and they kept coming every week and bringing it back up. I kept telling them to, ‘let it <expletive> go, let it <expletive> go.’”
After some more conversation Batts says that he and some others were written up prior to the complaint against Barrett, “We got written up 2 days before the deal with the gun. That’s what I went back and looked at when I got wrote up for no seatbelt and I went back… and that’s how I remembered the date because I couldn’t even remember the date.” Later, Batts says, “I don’t know what’s going on. I just wish all of this s--- would frickin’ go away. Like I said, I didn’t do nothing. I got blindsided by Stan (Maresch). Stan comes up and asks me and says ‘Hey, come here, I want you to help me do something.’ I walk outside and he says, ‘Close the door.’ I said ‘Okay’ and I closed the door. I said, ‘What’s going on?’ He acted like he wanted me to help him with something, I said, ‘What’s going on, Stan,” and he goes, ‘Oh, did Barrett pull a gun on you?’ I said, ‘What?’ He says, ‘Did Barrett pull a gun on you?’ I said, ‘Well, wait a minute, let me tell you the story.’ And then I told him what went on and he asked me, ‘Well, did you feel threatened?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Well do you want to press charges on Barrett.’ I said, ‘No. Hell no I don’t want to press charges on Barrett. I’ve known Barrett forever. I knew Barrett was just messing around but everybody made it… the big deal was it was a gun, you know, it was a gun involved.”
Mayor Dawni Seymore commented on the firing of Smith, “It was a difficult decision but we felt it was the right one given the information that came to light during our investigation. Our utmost concern and priority is for the City of Ballinger
That’s the only statement I’m willing to make at this time.”
What is unclear is if Seymore was a decision maker in the termination of Smith or if she simply agreed with LaQuey. According to the city charter, in section 3.05, the mayor has no administrative duties. The section reads, in part, “The mayor shall preside at meetings of the city council and shall be recognized as head of the city government for all ceremonial purposes and by the governor for purposes of martial law but shall have no regular administrative duties. The mayor shall vote upon all matters considered by the city council, but he shall have no veto power.”
Jeff Smith commented on the possible discussion of the incident among the other council members without his knowledge, “I officially believe all but me were included in the discussions. They utilized the fact that I was a conflict being it was my brother. However it is my belief that while I cannot officially vote I do have an opinion on the situation and the policies and procedures utilized in the final decision.”
Smith believes that the other council members, outside of a council meeting, discussed the incident since he didn’t know that Barrett Smith was going to get terminated. If so, this could be a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act.
At this time Ballinger has not placed any advertising for the position of city manager. Councilman Smith commented, “It has not been agreed upon by the council as a whole to even start the process of hiring Buck full time. I believe at this moment, with some glaring issues in his management style, that it would be another step back for our city if we where to pursue him as our main candidate. I feel we need to open it up to additional, perhaps better-suited candidates.” Seymore also said that the city has not advertised the position. Originally, 6 weeks ago, it was estimated that LaQuey would be here for 6 months.
It should also be noted that as this is a human resources issue, the city could not elaborate on the conversations, discipline, investigation or any actions taken by the city.