(Former city council member Dick Yehle sent this letter to the Village News for publication. Yehle was elected to the West University City Council three times and served as a council member for a total of six years. The Village News is a Bellaire-based, free distribution newspaper delivered to West University Place.)
Dear Village News Editor:
I find the Village News’s coverage of the West U City Manager removal effort totally bankrupt of objectivity. The latest example of your slanted articles begins in the headline of the July 28, 2015 article, i.e. “West U. City Manager Changes His Mind” and derisively characterizes Michael Ross as having “flip flop(ped)” on his desire to stay in West U. Nowhere in the article does it indicate that City Councilmembers advocating the change (the Slate) materially altered their position on awarding the contractually required severance pay from “pay the full amount” to “try to avoid paying anything”. The pretense of responsible reporting by the Village News is only slightly less hypocritical than the Slate’s failure to adhere to their campaign mantra of “transparency”.
A more accurate chronicle of events would be:
1. On June 3, 2015, three days after taking office and prior to any Council meeting to consider the matter, Councilmembers Reilly and Ballanfant met with Michael Ross to tell him he was doing a good job but that they (the Slate) were moving in a different direction and intended to replace him as City Manager subject to the terms of his severance agreement and on a negotiated timing of his choosing.
2. Ross understood that the overture that would allow him to formally retire and indicated that he would be receptive to a quick, quiet transition to minimize the adverse publicity to West U of having its City Manager summarily dismissed without legal “cause” and to minimize the damage to his professional credentials of being a victim of such action. All parties understood that meeting the terms of Ross’s severance contract would cost the City $220,000 plus Ross’s accrued vacation and sick time, and the cost of an executive search for a replacement.
3. Although it is not entirely clear why the City Attorney was not asked to draft a simple exit agreement based on the proposed terms, the Slate proposed and eventually hired Richard Rothfelder to represent the City in settlement negotiations with Ross. The unusual step of engaging Rothfelder as Special Counsel created an adversarial rather than an amicable negotiation and has far reaching implications for other rumored changes in City staffing that presumably would follow the replacement of Ross.
4. Coincident with the above circumstances and in anticipation that by a 4-1 vote the new Council would be hostile to him, Ross applied for the open City Manager position in Missouri City and eventually became a finalist. It is only logical that someone facing unemployment would seek an available alternative but throughout the process Ross made it clear that he would rather remain in West University Place.
5. Negotiation of the severance agreement did not go as smoothly as anticipated for a variety of reasons ranging from:
Public outrage over dismissing Michael Ross without cause; to
Public outrage with the Slate paying Michael Ross to retire; to
Public outrage with procedural steps of Slate members during Council meetings limiting public discussion of the matter; to the taint of hiring a Special Counsel and the associated legal fees; to
Rumors of subsequent steps planned by the Slate to hire the underqualified Southside Place City Manager as a replacement; to plans for hiring a new City Manager at a dramatically lower cost, the concern being that “you get what you pay for” and a cheaper alternative would not be as good as Ross; to
The prospect of losing key senior staff during the period of uncertainty following Ross’s prospective departure; to Rothfelder proposing an excessively restrictive new severance agreement on behalf of the Slate which was quickly rejected by Ross, to
Positioning by the Slate to handcuff Ross from recruiting West U staff for any new position he might take, something that is often proposed but is practically unenforceable and was not part of Ross’s contract.
6. Once negotiations over a severance package became difficult, the idea of a quick, amicable departure became unattainable and things began to change. Members of the Slate started to suggest they would not fully honor the contract and Ross began to pushback against any material modification to his contract. Some on council have even suggested that “cause” might be manufactured as a justification for firing Ross in order to avoid paying severance under the terms of his contract.
7. Councilmember Reilly became verbally aggressive at Council meetings and Ross retaliated by exercising his right to have all discussions of his situation be a matter of public record.
8. To clarify his position with regard to his desire to remain at West University Place and to remove an awkward negotiating issue, Ross formally withdrew from being considered for the Missouri City job.
9. Since mid-July the Slate has virtually stopped their action thereby leaving Michael Ross and the City in limbo. Presumably the hiatus is a plan to force Ross’s position on the Missouri City opportunity to avoid honoring his severance package. That door has been closed, yet the City Manager issue was not even discussed at the most recent Council meeting.
The bad faith displayed by the Slate has not been mentioned in any Village News article and all actions by Ross are typically cast in a dark light. Terms such as “flip flop” have a bad connotation, while actions by the Slate to “comply” with Ross’s request are overstated by failing to report that while the Slate agreed to conduct discussions of Ross’s employment in public it has virtually stopped all discussion rather than having an honest public debate. (Only Bob Kelly and Burt Ballanfant have spoken at any length on the matter and their comments were either without substance or unbelievable.) The Village News has totally ignored the very newsworthy uncivil actions of Slate members Reilly and Kelly from the Council bench during the last two months, something that has negatively contributed to the entire issue.
It is acceptable for newspapers to voice their opinions through editorials, but the public deserves more objective reporting in the main pages of their publications. Regardless of one’s view of what should happen to Michael Ross, all major factors affecting stories should be reported so that the public can form accurate impressions of what has transpired and what might be next. It is time for the Village News to back away from doing the bidding of the Slate and become a real newspaper.
Former West U Councilmember