Council Votes 3-2 to Fire Ross, Honor his Contract

During a special meeting Monday, the West U City Council voted, 3-2, to terminate veteran City Manager Michael Ross.

Despite support for Ross from dozens of West U residents, Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kelly made a motion to terminate Ross “involuntarily” and “without cause.”

Kelly’s motion was supported by Councilmen Burt Ballanfant and Brennan Reilly and opposed by Mayor Susan Sample and Council member Mardi Turner.

The council’s decision means that Ross will be paid more than $300,000 in salary, benefits and accrued personal leave and vacation time.

Before leaving the council chamber, Ross thanked the members of the public who had spoken in his favor and against his termination.

Michael Ross

Michael Ross

“It is very humbling and I appreciate the support of the public,” Ross said.

As he left the council chamber, the dozens of West U residents who had urged the council to keep Ross gave him a standing ovation.

Several prominent West U residents attended the meeting and urged the council not to fire Ross, who has worked for the city since 2001.

Former Council member Joan Johnson said the council’s decision to fire Ross “Is just wrong, and it shouldn’t be happening.”

Melissa Pipko, a West U resident who has served on the city’s Parks Board, told the council that Ross has done “a phenomenal job” as city manager.

“I think it would be a horrible, horrible shame to lose him. I would be embarrassed to be a resident of such a city. I think this is disgraceful.”

Judith Faulkner, a longtime West U resident, said she had never spoken at a city council meeting before Monday.

“Michael Ross has done a good job. Our city council should not even be considering this,” Faulkner said.

Russ Schulze, who is a member of the West U Rotary Club, along with Ross,  Ballanfant and Reilly, said the council’s action did not meet the “four-way” test recited by Rotarians at their weekly meetings.

Former City Council member Phyllis Cohen urged that council not to terminate Ross’ employment.

“I feel like I am in some Machiavellian story. Firing Michael will do great harm to West U,” Cohen said.

Former Councilman Dick Yehle, who had urged West U residents to attend the meeting, said that Ross’ performance as city manager “is not the issue.”

Yehle told the council, “You need to stop this foolishness and start acting in the best interests of the city.”

Another longtime West U resident, Candace Baggett, said the council’s actions “do not pass a common-sense sniff test.” She said the council’s “odiferous” behavior should stop.

Steve Brown, a frequent West U volunteer, told the council they should follow two old Texas sayings, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and “Do the right thing.”

“Both of those two admonitions apply to West U,” Brown said.

Nancy Gilbertson, however, was one of a handful of residents who approved of the council’s decision to terminate Ross.

Although she told Ross, “I don’t think you are a bad person,” she suggested that Ross has been working for the last 15 years for “a non-profit organization” in West U — an apparent reference to the West U Baptist Church.

The newly elected “slate” on the West U City Council swept into office over opposition to the prior city council’s approval of a long-term Master Plan for Municipal Facilities. That plan involved the so-called “Super Block” and real estate negotiations with West U Baptist Church. After the slate was elected, the church terminated its real estate negotiations with the city.

Former West U Councilman Stan McCandless said that Ross had “become the fall guy” for the previous city council, which authorized Ross to conduct negotiations with the West U Baptist Church. “The city council appointed him to do that,” McCandless said.

The council’s decision came after two months of legal wrangling over whether the new city council would abide by the terms of Ross’ employment contract.

Ross, who had been city manager of West University Place for 14 years, recently withdrew his name from consideration as one of three finalists for the city manager’s job in Missouri City.

Ross stated then that he wanted to remain as city manager of West University Place.

Ross’ termination has been under consideration since the slate of four new city council members took office. The slate includes two former West U Mayors — Bob Kelly and Burt Ballanfant — who had presided over earlier performance reviews and substantial pay raises for Ross.

While Ballanfant was mayor, from 2003 to 2006,  Ross’ salary was increased from $119,600 to $140,000. In the year 2005, while Ballanfant was mayor, Ross got two pay raises.

When Kelly took over as mayor in 2007, Ross’ salary was raised to $150,000. As mayor, Kelly approved two pay raises for Ross in 2008, and two more pay raises in 2009. When Kelly left office in 2010, Ross was earning more than $184,300 annually.

Councilman Brennan Reilly, who had  accused Ross of “improper actions,” in at least one email to a West U resident, led the effort to oust Ross from his position as city manager.

Reilly said that Ross’ improper actions included the taping of a telephone call with Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack — which took place more than five years ago. Ross noted that his actions were “approved” by the city council at that time.

Council member Mardi Turner, the fourth member of the slate, had stated earlier that she did not agree that Ross should be let go.

After the council’s 3-2 vote, several residents in the council chamber began chanting: “Recall! Recall! Recall.”

A recall election for the city council cannot be held — and signatures on a petition for a recall — cannot happen until the council has been in office for six months.