Council Considers City Manager’s Ouster in Boisterous Session

Despite strong expressions of support from many West U residents, the West U City Council decided Monday to continue its agreement with special legal counsel to negotiate the ouster of veteran City Manager Michael Ross.

During a boisterous meeting, and amid cries of “Recall the Slate,” Councilman Bob Kelly failed to get a second for his motion to fire Ross, effective Friday, under the terms of his employment contract. That contract provides that the city manager is entitled to a severance package of about $300,000, including accrued vacation time, insurance benefits and his annual salary of $225,000.

The terms that grant the city manager a full year’s salary upon termination have been in place since Ross starting working for West U in 2002.

The council met for about an hour in executive session, behind closed doors, before reconvening in a public meeting to consider Ross’ ouster — at his request.

Although the four members of the City Council had campaigned on a pledge of transparency, they provided no specific reasons for their desire to terminate Ross from his position as city manager after nearly 13 years with the city.

Kelly said the West U City Charter allows the council to choose a city manager. He said the council did not have to explain its desire to terminate Ross.

“We don’t want to muddle in that,” Kelly said, adding: “This is a tough job.”

Kelly said the “average life expectancy of a city manager is about five to six years.

“The issue is the charter. The charter gives us the unfettered right to the city council in its decisions on the city manager,” Kelly said. “It’s a confidence thing this city council has to deal with.”

Kelly moved to fire Ross but to pay the veteran city manager the full benefits that he is entitled to, under his employment contract. His motion drew no support from other members of the council.

Councilman Brennan Reilly, who also has advocated Ross’ termination, said he did not think the city manager should receive the full benefits of his employment contract without some provisions that would prevent Ross from going to work for another city and hiring other West U city employees to work for him. Reilly wanted to question Ross about his recent interview with Missouri City, which is seeking a new city manager.

Reilly then moved that the council ask Ross some questions “if Michael responds to these questions truthfully.”

As City Attorney Alan Petrov started to explain that the council could ask the city manager questions, Ross said, “At the advice of my attorney, I will not answer any questions.”

Reilly then petulantly complained that Ross had asked for an open meeting, when Mayor Susan Sample cut him off, saying:  “We’re not in Night Court!”

The audience in the City Council chamber erupted into applause at the mayor’s comment.

Sample said simply: “I think the city is running fine.”

“”Also — as Brennan has mentioned — Michael has put together a blue-ribbon team of city employees. I think if he leaves, we are going to lose a lot of our team.”

Sample said that she had already noticed that several key city employees had updated their resumes and profiles on the LinkedIn job search website.

Councilmember Mardi Turner agreed with Sample.

“I might have gone at this in a different way,” Turner said.

Kelly then said, “There is no doubt Michael Ross is going to leave. He is going to leave, folks. It’s going to happen. A city manager cannot work for a city council that does not have confidence in him.”

At that point, two West U residents called out: “Then recall the slate.”

One of them was West U resident Shelly Noblett, who said he does not want the council to fire the city manager. Noblett also said she thinks the newly elected council should be recalled.

Kelly and Councilman Burt Ballanfant both claimed that as they were campaigning in the West U municipal election last spring, they were told by many West U residents that they did not want Ross to continue as city manager.

Ballanfant said that while he was campaigning last spring, he always asked potential voters what they thought was the most important issue facing the city.

“Far and away, the most common answer was ‘fire the city manager,’ Ballanfant said.

“I would be derelict in my duty,” Ballanfant said, if he didn’t listen to the will of the voters.

“I will support the termination of Michael Ross.”

Turner said, however, “I didn’t hear the extent of the views that these guys did when I was out campaigning.”

Ross’ competency as city manager of West University Place was praised by several residents, including several former city officials.

Denny Powers, a member of the Building and Standards Commission, said that West U’s strong building foundations and regulation of LED lighting “could not have happened without the support of Michael and his staff.”

Powers also recalled an incident when he was leaving town and found a loose dog on his street. Powers put the dog in a box and tried to drop it off at the West U Police Department, but the city’s Code Enforcement and Animal Control chief was away at the time.

“Michael took the puppy and put him in his office,” Powers said.

Former Councilmembers Dick Yehle, Joan Johnson and Steven Segal all had high praise for Ross.

“I have never seen anything like what we going through right now,” Johnson said.

Yehle noted the many recent awards that have been given to West U’s city staff.

Segal urged the council to be honest and to demonstrate some integrity.

“A contract with West U should mean something,” Segal said. “Don’t lie and fabricate reason to cheat Michael out of his benefits.”

“It is time for honor and integrity, which so far, you have failed to demonstrate,” Segal said.

Later, the council voted to keep special counsel Richard Rothfelder on — for a retainer of $4,950 — to continue to negotiate the terms of Ross’ separation from the city. The council rejected Reilly’s proposal to pay Rothfelder’s law firm their hourly rate, which ranges from $200 up to $450 per hour.