The Ballinger City Council called a special session on Thursday, March 12th to fill the seat of Single Member District 4 that was vacated when councilwoman Kristi Goetz resigned on March 3rd. The only person nominated for the seat was Mike Riley and he was appointed but not sworn in due to an oversight on the agenda. There was no agenda item listed for him to be sworn in so he’ll be sworn at a future council meeting.
The Mayor Dawni Seymore addressed comments made on social media in recent weeks by the citizens. The comments were precipitated by numerous issues over the last 3-4 months.
The council has been in turmoil since prior to Seymore winning the election for mayor in November. Former city manager Tommy Turney was fired on January 6th. Councilmembers Bob McDaniel and Jason Gore resigned in protest of Turney being fired and walked out of the council meeting. KRUN general manager Jeff Smith was appointed to the seat vacated by Gore, Single Member District 1. Bob McDaniel’s seat, Single Member District 3 was filled when the council appointed Ryan Lange to the position.
The council went through a company, Texas First, which supplies former city managers and administrators to cities around the state. The city hired on Buck LaQuey as interim city manager. The city allegedly didn’t advertise for the city manager position so the possibility existed that LaQuey would be the permanent city manager. LaQuey has a background in forensic auditing and is a CPA, which is what the city needed after the budget woes and credit card abuse issues came to light.
After he was hired, it was discovered by members of the public that LaQuey was found to have been sued for sexual harassment while he worked for Grimes County several years ago. According to an article in The Eagle, the local Grimes County newspaper, the lawsuit was settled by the county. The Ballinger city council allegedly knew of the lawsuit and a councilmember reportedly asked LaQuey about it in executive session but the council never informed the public of LaQuey’s history.
LaQuey’s stay in Ballinger was only about 2 months due to public outrage regarding the discovery of the lawsuit, the way in which he treated citizens and his demotion, then firing of former Ballinger Street supervisor, Barrett Smith. LaQuey was asked as a city council meeting about the Smith issue and he declined to say why Smith was fired. Smith says that he was never told why he was fired. Smith said that when LaQuey called him in, that he asked for Smith’s keys and told him he was fired. Smith said that when he asked why he was being fired that LaQuey said, “If you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you.” Seymore said that she supported the decision to fire Smith.
There was also inconsistency with water bills. At one point some people said that they received a bill for 2 weeks of water and then they were charged for 6 weeks of water on the next bill. LaQuey allegedly implemented a “No extensions” policy on water bills, which caught many people by surprise and caused concern within the community.
LaQuey is said to have resigned at some point during the week of March 2nd (after the heated council meeting that week) and moved back to his home outside of Austin.
The resignation of 3 council members, the perceived dishonesty with the LaQuey situation, the way he handled matters with the citizens, frustrations with Seymore’s support of LaQuey and a myriad of other issues had many community members complaining openly and vociferously on social media.
The special council meeting began on March 12th with Seymore discussing the public concerns, “We’ve had some trouble and we’ve made some mistakes. As a council, our goal is the betterment of the city.” Seymore said that no decisions are made by “executive order”, saying that every decision is voted on by the councilmembers, “Not everyone is happy with the decisions that we make and that’s just the way it is.” Decisions and perception were a concern for many who stated outside of the council meeting, and openly at previous council meetings, that they believe that if Seymore didn’t agree with them, that she didn’t believe that they had the best interest of the city at heart. Seymore has never stated this and prior to being elected she said that tough decisions would have to be made and that she would make them based on business decisions and not emotions.
Seymore also spoke about the social media comments and what she called “verbal assaults,” in which she says that she was called “Hitler”, along with other negative comments, “To what end will you continue the verbal assaults? To what end will you continue the insults and hatred?” Seymore also said that she was happy to see people show up to the city council meetings, with two caveats, “It’s nice to see people show up (at council meetings) but I’d appreciate a little less hatred and I’d like a little less meanness.”
A change that people feel that the council is allegedly attempting to implement is that the believe that Seymore wants citizens to go through their councilmembers before an issue is placed on the agenda and brought to council, “Call your councilman and have a respectful conversation. Is that too much to ask?” One former councilmember said that if a councilmember wants an item on the agenda, then it is required to be put on the agenda. Citizens can go to any councilmember, whether he/she is the councilmember for their district or not, to get an issue put on the agenda. There is no required type “chain-of-command” required to bring an item to the council.
Ginger Turner, along with others present at the council meeting, addressed Seymore and the council with her concerns, “We don’t receive a packet before the council meetings. There is no agenda posted on the video board.” Seymore replied to Turner’s concerns, “We’re learning as we go along.”
A significant issue at the special council meeting was Seymore discussing becoming the interim city manager. She said that she could step down as mayor, become interim city manager, and then return as mayor when the city manager position is filled. This raised several concerns, not just the legality of it. If Seymore were to step down as mayor and become interim city manager, mayor pro-tem Rick Morrish would become mayor. This would leave the council at 4 members and no one to break a tie on votes. Seymore said that this is similar to what they had done between the tenure of Turney and LaQuey. Councilman Smith raised concerns about the legality but neither Seymore nor councilman Ryan Lange had an issue with it. City Attorney Pat Chesser was not at the council meeting and Smith wanted to have the idea double checked with him but there was resistance from Seymore who said that Smith could refer to previous council minutes. The problem that Smith had is that none of the city council minutes have been posted since 2019, so there was nothing for him to refer to. Smith made a motion to table that agenda item but the motion was not seconded and thus died. Lange made a motion to install Seymore as interim city manager but that motion also failed to get seconded and died as well. It will have to be addressed at the next council meeting.
Seymore also brought up the issue of the mayor not having any city administrative duties, per the city charter. City Charter Section 3.05.Presiding officer.
The city charter reads, “The mayor shall preside at meetings of the city council and shall be recognized as head f 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 up on all matters considered by the city council, but he shall have no veto power. The mayor pro-tem shall act as mayor during the absence or disability of the mayor.”
Seymore said that while the charter says that she doesn’t have any administrative powers, it doesn’t mean that she “can’t” have administrative powers. According to the definitions in Texas law, specifically Texas Government Code 311.016; “The definitions of “may,” “shall,” “must,” Etc., are as follows:
“The following constructions apply unless the context in which the word or phrase appears necessarily requires a different construction or unless a different construction is expressly provided by statute:
(1) “May” creates discretionary authority or grants permission or a power.
(2) “Shall” imposes a duty.
(3) “Must” creates or recognizes a condition precedent.
(4) “Is entitled to” creates or recognizes a right.
(5) “May not” imposes a prohibition and is synonymous with “shall not.”
(6) “Is not entitled to” negates a right.
(7) “Is not required to” negates a duty or condition precedent.
With the words in the charter being, “shall have no regular administrative duties,” rather than “may not,” many believe that it would seemingly mean that the mayor can’t have any administrative powers. Without Chesser present, there was no one to give a legal opinion on the mayor’s statement. Also, without Chesser, there was also no legal opinion to address Smith’s concerns on the mayor becoming interim city manager. Smith appeared to be the only council member concerned with the legality of the decision and as to whether or not the mayor could step down as mayor and then step back into office at-will. Emails to the Texas Secretary of State and the Texas Municipal League asking for clarification had not been answered as of the writing of this article.
Due to the Coronavirus, it’s not known when the next city council meeting will occur. It’s scheduled for April 6th with the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control stating that the virus will most likely have peaked by then and will be dying off.