Ballinger City Council roundup; new police chief approved

Bill Hancock
Runnels County Register
The January 4, Ballinger City Council meeting was filled with surprises and discussion regarding the hiring of a new chief of police as well as placing the day-to-day operations of the police department under City Manager Brian Frieda.

***** The city council voted to hire the new police chief, Ray Cornutt, last night. The council was in Executive Session to consider his hiring when the newspaper went to print. According to City Manager Brian Frieda, the chief's salary is set at $60,000 and he'll receive a $600 vehicle allowance until some units on order arrive.*****

The city council clarified some issues that had been meandering through the community since the city council agenda was posted on Friday.

All members of the council were present, with the exception of councilman Ryan Lange, who is out with COVID.

The topic of "Security concerns" was addressed after questions arose about what it actually dealt with. According to city manager Brian Frieda, it's anything that has to do with any security issues city-wide. This could be physical security, such as home and business, or cyber issues. It's an all-encompassing topic.

Councilman Steve Gray said that he did not have access to the city's software for posting council agenda items. Gray said that he could access the website, but that he didn't have the option to add anything to the agenda. He had items that he wanted posted on the agenda. Frieda said that the city is currently addressing the issue.

According to the city manager and financial advisor John Pierik, the city is in a deficit on water sales, but has a surplus on trash and sewer. According to the report, the city is currently at 1/5% - 2% on the positive side of the budget. The report also shows that the city is completing a comprehensive asset list, with all assets over the value of $2000 listed. The city said that they've had excessive spending in some departments, such as the Fire Department, Animal Control and Streets, but have made salary adjustments. The Street department and Water department spending includes overtime, mainly due to after-hours call outs.

The biggest questions revolved around the position for the Chief of Police. Frieda and Pierik said that they started looking for someone to fill a position for a lieutenant 3-4 months ago. During the course of that search, they said that it became a search for a police chief. Up until this council meeting, there was no position on the department for a lieutenant. When it came to the search, Pierik said that they received several applications, but that no one was willing to come in and sit down with them. Much of the news was surprising since there has been no posting for the position of Chief of Police. Ballinger Police Chief Stan Maresch addressed the council and asked to be removed as police chief so that he could become the lieutenant. Maresch will continue at his present salary level.

A new police chief was to be considered during Executive Session. The chief is a police officer from Sweetwater, the town where Frieda was most recently the police chief. Apparently, he was interviewed a few weeks ago by the council. His name is Ray Cornutt. He was at the council meeting. There was no release of the information regarding his salary or compensation package. We will update the information when we receive it.

Maresch said that while the council was looking for a new police chief, he asked Frieda if they could get someone to come in as chief and step in for him. He said that he had only been a police officer a couple of years when he was thrust into the chief's position, "If you look back over 30 years, every chief we've had has been what I call 'home grown.' They were all from here." He reference passed chiefs who were from Ballinger and had several years of experience under their belts before becoming chief. Now, Maresch said that it's time for a change and that the city has an opportunity for someone with a "different eye" and different "view of policing," to come in, "I love this town and we need someone else to come in." Maresch also wants to continue his education.

Gray spoke to Maresch while he was addressing this council, "I've been disappointed in the PD. We've spoken about this. I would like the opportunity for these people to not see what we've seen from the PD over the last few years." Councilman Rick Morrish also addressed Maresch, "I think it's a great opportunity for you to further your education and advance." Morrish added that he also thinks that it's a great opportunity for the city.

The most public discussion came on the topic of putting the city manager in charge of day-to-day operations of the police department. According to some citizens who spoke, there was confusion regarding the issue. In 2019 Ballinger voters had voted down Proposition C, which would have put the day-to-day operations of the police department under the city manager. According to Frieda, the language under the proposition was more broad than what the council was presently considering. Frieda said that the move, "Provided necessary oversight for the day-to-day operations of the police department."

The explanation still didn't sit well with some of those in attendance, including Cheryl Buchanan, who asked councilmen Gray and Ken Manley to support the community who had voted against Prop C in 2019, by voting against the proclamation now. Frieda clarified saying that the move didn't give him the power to hire and fire police officers, which would fall to the police chief. According to Frieda, any disciplinary action regarding the chief would still come before the city council. 

Former councilman and KRUN radio general manager Jeff Smith also addressed the council, stating that they needed to be more transparent. Smith said that if they'd posted the proclamation on the city Facebook page or the city website, it might have cut down on the confusion. It also didn't help matters that no one knew about the hiring of a new police chief, whose contract as apparently already been written. There were questions over why the public hasn't been informed, if the process to look for a new police chief started several months. Apparently, Maresch and Frieda had meetings with the police officers a few weeks ago, informing them of Maresch's decision to step down.

After several minutes of discussion on the proclamation, Buchanan said that she'd be more comfortable with the proclamation if the council put a limitation that it would only be in place until the next election where City Charter amendments could be voted on by the community. Gray made a motion to approve the agenda item, with the caveat suggested by Buchanan. The item then passed the council vote.

The Proposition C was wider in scope than the opposed proclamation from the city.

Back in 2019, In the opinion of city attorney Pat Chesser, this (Prop C) is the standard way most cities operate. There was fierce opposition to the proposition, much of it coming from the police and fire department. In the end, the proposition failed by a vote of 355-198.

The original Proposition C from 2019:

Explanation of Proposition No. 3:

The current City Charter currently has a weak form of “Council-Manager” form of

government. The Charter provides that the City will hire a City Manager to run the

day-to-day operations of the City, but the City Manager cannot hire any employees,

including, the City Treasurer and the City Secretary, without the approval of the City

Council. The Charter also provides that the Police and paid Fire Department are

under the direct control and supervision of the City Council. This proposition would

bring the City of Ballinger into a true “Council-Manager” form of government,

whereby the City Manager would be responsible to run the day-to-day operations of

the City, would put all departments and employees of the City under the City

Manager’s supervision and control, except the City Judge and the City Attorney, and

would place the hiring authority of all employees, including, the Police Chief and

paid Fire Marshal or Fire Chief, under the City Manager. The City Council would still

retain the right to confirm and approve all appointments to department head

positions, and approve and confirm the removal of the Police Chief and paid Fire

Marshal or Chief, the appointment and removal of the City Judge, and the

appointment and removal of the City Attorney.

Proposition No. 3:Shall the City of Ballinger amend and/or add to the following sections of the City

Charter of the City of Ballinger to provide for a “Council-Manager” form of

government and to clarify the powers and duties of the City Council and City

Manager in furtherance of that form of government? Article 1, Section 1.02; Article

3, Section 3.11; Article 7, Sections 7.01(c)(1), 7.02(a), 7.02(b); Article 8, Sections

8.01 and 8.02; Article 9, Sections 9.01, 9.02; Article 12, Section 12.01; Article 14,

Sections 14.01 and 14.02; and Article 15, Section 15.01(e)

The proposed revisions to the Charter are as follows:

Section 1.02. Form of government.

The municipal government provided by this charter, shall be known as the “Council-

Manager Government”. Pursuant to its provisions and subject only to the

limitations imposed by the state constitution, the statutes of this State, and this charter, all powers of the city shall be vested in an elected council hereinafter

referred to as “the council,” which shall enact local legislation, adopt budgets,

determine policies and appoint the city administrator, who in turn, shall be held

responsible to the City Council for the execution of the laws and the administration

of the governmentthe chief of police, and such other officials as it may deem

necessary. All powers of the city shall be exercised in the manner prescribed by

this charter, or if the manner be not prescribed, then in such manner as may be

prescribed by ordinance.

There will be a follow up story posted later this week after an interview with the city manager.