Approximately 35-40 showed up at the Ballinger city council meeting on March 2nd. It seemed pre-determined to be a heated meeting considering 3 recent, significant events in Ballinger.
The first issue was the city informing people that there would no longer be any extensions on water bills. Some people had received a water bill for a 6-week period and then received one for a 2-week period.
The second issue was the firing of streets supervisor Barrett Smith. About 3 weeks ago Smith was demoted from supervisor to driver. The following week he was terminated by interim city manager Buck LaQuey. When he fired Smith, LaQuey refused to give him a reason for the termination. At the city council meeting LaQuey repeated that he wasn’t going to give a reason for firing Smith. According to city attorney Pat Chesser, the city isn’t required to give a reason for his termination since Texas is a right-to-work state. This was the most heated topic with one person coming into the meeting wearing a #BringBarrettBack shirt.
Prior to the meeting mayor Dawni Seymore said that the council would escort anyone out who caused problems. People were obviously upset over the recent incidents but no one was unruly.
The Smith firing was due to him showing his pistol to another man at work, on city property. The city had no policy against firearms at work and it’s been reported by city employees that former city manager Tommy Turney had 2 CHL classes held for employees with the city sporting half the bill. This had many people out in support of their 2nd Amendment rights. One person in the audience, Chad Hardy, had his pistol in his holster, openly carried. Ballinger police chief Stan Maresch told Hardy to go out and put his pistol in his truck. Hardy said that he could legally carry his pistol in city hall but Maresch wasn’t going to discuss it. Hardy took his pistol out to his vehicle and came back in. The law states that Hardy was allowed to carry his pistol into city hall because the city did not have the proper signage posted informing the public of the rule.
When the meeting was fully underway, one person asked the council how many members were involved in the decision to terminate Smith. In a previous article in this newspaper, Seymore had given a statement that “we” made the decision to terminate Smith. That was the end of it. Neither he nor the council said anything more. The issue is that if Seymore or any council members were involved in the decision outside of council, it could be a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act. It would also go against the city charter since the charter states that the mayor has no administrative duties.
Another person addressed an incident that she had with LaQuey. She said that LaQuey had been rude to her during a conversation. During the conversation she said that LaQuey had been disrespectful and unprofessional, “I don’t know what I said that set him off or caused him to talk to me in that tone. He told me, ‘I’m not putting you on no agenda, put yourself on your own agenda.’” The woman said that she talked to councilmember Ryan Lange who told her, “He’s a Yankee. That’s just how Yankees talk.” At that point Seymore stopped her and told her that she was exceeding the 3-minute time limit that each person is given and that she would be put on the next agenda and that they’d schedule a meeting with LaQuey. At that point LaQuey said, “Let the record show that I’m not a Yankee.”
Ginger Turner was also in the audience and asked about 3 previous lawsuits that LaQuey was involved in. LaQuey had worked for Grimes County and during his tenure Turner said that LaQuey was sued by 2 women for sexual harassment. At least one of the cases was settled by the county. LaQuey commented about his own lawsuit against the county, “The district judge required me to sue the county.” LaQuey said that this was due to the way things in the county were structured. LaQuey then commented on the sexual harassment lawsuit, “No good deed goes unpunished. I took a washing machine from outside of Austin to this (complainant) person’s house. I did not pay for it, I only transported it. We went through an arbitration that lasted 8 hours.” LaQuey says that arbitrator told him, “These people are a bunch of extortionists.” LaQuey said that the purpose of the ladies suing him was to get him fired so one of them could take his job. The original articles can be found in The Eagle newspaper, which LaQuey also commented on, “I wasn’t able to answer questions then and I’m not supposed to say anything now.” LaQuey reiterated that he helped the ladies and that they turned on him.
Another woman in the audience said that in council meetings when Tommy Turney was city manager, a lot of women came in to complain about him using the “F” word, “And we bring in a man with 2 sexual harassment lawsuits.” LaQuey responded, “You’re assuming that I’m guilty.” The reply was, “They (the complainants) were paid.”
The subject turned to the water bills when another person in the audience brought up the subject. She said that the city has said in the past that they don’t watch or listen to Facebook, “You cannot say that you don’t watch or listen to Facebook, but you can’t have a Facebook account to display public notices and say that you don’t listen to social media.” Linda Maynard also spoke on the subject, “I was upset with the yellow flashing on the water bill. Elderly people or people out of town may not have known it.” Maynard continued, “The only power you have is when you’re sitting in that chair. Our mayor and Kristi (councilwoman Goetz) have taken it upon themselves to make decisions without other council members.”
Ballinger Printing owner, Steve Gray, was also in attendance and spoke to LaQuey and the council, “It’s all about public perception. We have a lot going on in this town and you’re not telling us about it.” Gray brought up the CHL classes that the city allegedly paid for. Councilman Rick Morrish said that there was never a CHL class discussed and that it’s not anywhere in the minutes. Gray responded, “The minutes aren’t available. They haven’t been for months.” According to the city website, the only council minutes available are from 2019. Apparently none of the minutes have been posted from the council meetings this year.
Gray continued discussing perception by bringing up the robbery of an elderly Marine veteran, “He was told by the PD, ‘We don’t work 24/7.’ Again, it’s about perception. The perception that you can demote a city employee and then fire him because you (LaQuey) can’t fire a city supervisor without a vote from the council.”
At one point a woman spoke up and told the council and LaQuey, “One month you praise the man (Smith) and the next month you fire him.”
Also covered at the council meeting was the subject of firearms at the city lake. Maresch addressed the issue, “With past administrations it’s been an issue with people discharging firearms at the city lake. It’s city property, within city limits and no one can discharge a firearm within the city limits. It wouldn’t hurt to get signs put up stating that discharging a firearm was illegal.” According to the map, the city lake is not within the Ballinger City Limits but it is city property. An email was sent to Maresch asking for details regarding the “within city limits” statement and if there was an ordinance that had been adopted that legally considered the lake within city limits.
Perhaps the most heated debate ensued over the council considering the prohibition of employees carrying firearms at work. The mayor said that they wanted to ban city workers from carrying firearms. Councilman Jeff Smith spoke up passionately about the issue, “There are no ordinances in place restricting carrying a gun at work.” Smith told Buck that you have to watch how you deal with citizens. Allegedly, LaQuey then said, according to Smith and those sitting at the front of the audience, “Let’s get it.” Smith considered it a threat and spoke for it to be on the record. Hardy then asked the council, “Why was I asked to take my weapon off?” Another lady in the audience spoke up, “You’re just now trying to put this in place because of what happened to Barrett.”
Seymore spoke up about the agenda item regarding prohibiting city employees carrying firearms, and it not being a rule under previous administrations, “We can’t go back and change any of that.” Allegedly, Smith was not fired for carrying his firearm, he was fired for pulling it out and showing a coworker. This can’t be verified because the city refused to comment on it when Smith was fired and refused to comment on it at the city council meeting.
Councilman Rick Morrish spoke up as well, “I worked in the oil and gas industry for over 30 years and there is not a place that allows the carrying of a firearm.” This was disputed by several people in the audience who pointed out that firearms are carried by staff at the schools, several businesses and in some hospitals.
Hardy said that he spoke directly to the man who Smith showed his pistol to and alleged that the guy told him, “He was not in fear and didn’t feel threatened.” Another woman spoke up and said that our forefathers, fathers, uncles, etc. fought and died for our 2nd Amendment rights. Councilman Smith also commented, “The guy who complained about it (Smith) wasn’t the one who reported it.” Allegedly, the person who reported it was written up and reported by Barrett Smith for insubordination and safety violations the week prior to his own troubles. Both Smiths and many within the community see Smith’s termination as retaliation. Hardy asked for a show of hands by everyone who was opposed to the city’s prohibition on employees carrying guns and almost every hand went up. The agenda item was tabled to research the idea and legalities of city employees carrying weapons. Julie Vela made a comment to the council, “Please don’t take away your employees’ lawful right to carry their firearms.” Linda Maynard also commented, “I went through a shooting at Columbine. If more people had carried guns maybe not so many kids would have been killed.” Turner also spoke up again, “You’re violating our rights and the law by limiting us to 3 minutes when we address the council.” Bud Yancy also spoke up as well, “I want y’all to do one good thing; rehire Barrett and fire Buck LaQuey.”
In other council business, the city will take over the electric utility bill payment for the Girl Scout Hut. The Ballinger Rotary Club has been footing the bill, which averages around $30, and the city agreed to now pay that bill.
Maguire Iron, Inc., a company in South Dakota, was hired as the company to handle the standpipe that was destroyed in the tornado. The work is estimated to cost $206,300.
The council went into Executive Session to discuss hiring an interim Street Dept. supervisor and to discuss the Smith incident. After the session that council announced that Mike New would be hired as the interim supervisor while the city reviews applications for a permanent supervisor. There was no comment on the Smith incident.
The new agenda system allows the city council to lump some items into the “Consent Agenda.” Those are items the council can decide on without much, if any, discussion. Some of the items in this meeting included the city-owned land beside Glory Road Cowboy Church. The church would like to use it for grazing and the city approved it. This was discussed briefly.
The next item that was on the consent agenda and wasn’t discussed much, was the appointment of 2 people to be appointed to the City of Ballinger Planning and Zoning Commission Board.
Other items included approving the route for the Justin Byler 5k run, building grants, structural fire gear for the fire department and a $1,000 training tuition grant for the fire department.
On March 3rd, the day after the council meeting, councilwoman Kristi Goetz tendered her resignation. If it holds, someone will have to be appointed to her place. Goetz is the 3rd council member to resign since January 6th. The other 2 who resigned are Bob McDaniel and Jason Gore.
The next city council meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on March 19th.