Despite overwhelming and vocal opposition from their supporters, the new West U City Council on Thursday approved hiring attorney Richard Rothfelder to negotiate the terms of a retirement package for City Manager Michael Ross.
The 4-1 vote to approve Rothfelder’s hiring came in a fractious and surreal meeting, in which West U residents who had voted for the slate of Brennan Reilly, Bob Kelly, Burt Ballanfant and Mardi Turner urged them to abide by their campaign promises of transparency and openness in local government.
The new council members repeatedly rebuffed Mayor Susan Sample’s attempts to publicly discuss their reasons for wanting to get rid of the veteran, 14-year city manager.
The mayor had wanted the council to discuss an earlier offer to Ross — tendered by Councilmembers Brennan Reilly and Burt Ballanfant — that would have allowed the city manager to retire for a sum of about $300,000. Sample also wanted the council to discuss why they wanted to oust Ross, since they have been in office for only 18 days.
Reilly and the other members of the council voted 4-1 to block that discussion until after an executive session, when Sample withdrew that agenda item.
West U resident Jim Shields charged that the new council was acting at the behest of former Mayor and current Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kelly.
“You are relentless in your pursuit of revenge,” Shields said.
Even supporters of the new council challenged their decision. The slate of candidates formed during the controversial consideration of a long-term Municipal Facilities Master Plan, which involved a land swap with West University Baptist Church. The new council members said they objected to a lack of transparency during those negotiations.
Michelle Moore, who said she had supported the slate, repeatedly demanded that Reilly and Kelly look at her while she made her comments to oppose Ross’ ouster.
“I voted for you all,” Moore said. “I am not happy with this lack of transparency. I have heard no reasons why Michael Ross should come up for review.”
“This all makes me very upset,” Moore said. Quoting Reilly from a November 1, 2014 meeting, Moore said. “He said this process stinks.”
West U resident David Dutch, another West U resident who supported the slate.
“I supported all of you,” Dutch said. “I don’t like the ways you are handling things here.”
West U resident Michelle Chen urged the council not to take any action to terminate Ross’ employment with the city. She said their decision seemed to be “due to a personal vendetta.”
Ross’ performance as West U’s city manager was praised by several former council members, including former Mayor Pro Tem Phyllis Cohen, Steven Segal, Joan Johnson, Ed Heathcott and George Boehme.
In a lengthy letter to the council, Cohen suggested that they had violated “the spirit, if not the letter, of the Texas Open Meetings Act,” which requires city councils to discuss city business in public.
Segal, who ran unsuccessfully for city council, urged the the council to “stand by your pledge of transparency.”
Boehme, after acknowledging that Ross “is a very close friend,” told the council that the city manager has always acted at the direction of the West U council.
“Here is a city manager who has never worked for ya’ll,” Boehme said. “You come in and you want to fire him.”
Ross’ management of the city also won praise from several West U prominent West U residents, including commercial real estate broker Marshall Clinkscales.
“Michael Ross is a man of absolute integrity and high moral character, and he is recognized in his field,” Clinkscales said.
Ross also was praised by West U residents who couldn’t attend the Thursday morning meeting, include Joni Hruska Fichter, the founder of the Challenger Division of West U Little League, and West U Little League president Robby Winston.
The council’s action was supported by two residents, Susan Ohsfeldt and Alita Drewes.
“I support the city council’s decision regarding Mr. Ross, however it goes,” Ohsfeldt said.
Drewes has repeatedly addressed the prior city council about the the city manager’s decision to prevent her from using city facilities. Drewes, who was repeatedly warned about her behavior at the city’s Senior Center and parks facilities, contends that her First Amendment rights have been violated.
Reilly and Kelly defended themselves against charges that anyone had violated the Open Meetings Act.
They said they wanted the council to meet in executive session to protect Ross’ privacy.
“I am quite familiar with the Act, as well as the need for more transparency,” Reilly said.
Sample said she opposed hiring special counsel, because “It puts the cart before the horse. My desire as mayor was to work as a team and to put personal agendas (aside). This isn’t the way I wish he started.”
Reilly repeatedly said that Sample’s comments were “out of order.”
At one point, Sample ruled that her comments were “germane,” and she asked Reilly to listen.
Reilly then stated that he wanted to “appeal” Sample’s ruling, a motion that was seconded by Kelly.
Ballanfant suggested, “Let’s let the mayor talk,” before the council voted 3-2, to allow the mayor to discuss the hiring of Rothfelder. Ballanfant and Turner sided with Sample on that one point.
Reilly and Kelly also said the executive session was needed, and allowed, to discuss personnel matters.
“The main reason we are doing this is to protect Mike Ross,” Kelly said, to laughter. Shields called out, “Oh, Bob! Give us a break!”
After the meeting, Ross declined to comment.
Long-time West U council watcher Dorothy Zink, who attends most of the city council meetings, said, “I’ve been coming for 16 years and this is the worst city council meeting I’ve seen, ever, ever. I’ve just never seen anything like it.”