Embattled Alpine City Manager terminated on 3-2 vote

ALPINE – After some had tried for about six months, the Alpine City Council voted 3-2 to terminate City Manager Jessica Garza, who has been under fire for creating a “hostile work environment” that led to the resignation and retirement of several employees and for being late to provide budget information, a plan for street repairs and other vital information.

It was not all bad news for Garza, however. Along with her termination, the motion also included a provision that she be given a severance package of a lump sum payment of six months of all salary and benefits.

The action came during a contentious hearing which also dealt with Mayor Andy Ramos voting against a similar motion July 2, which killed the motion on a 3-3 tie.

Former City Attorney Mick McKamie of San Antonio told Ramos that he could vote and it would take four votes to terminate the city manager. Several citizens argued that McKamie was wrong, and council later agreed to terminate McKamie.

The vote Tuesday was exactly the same as a month ago, but without Ramos voting. Councilor Rick Stephens made the motion and it was supported by Lucy Escovedo and Maria Curry.

Opposing were Ramon Olivas and Betty Fitzgerald.

Before the motion on Garza, Stephens moved and the motion carried to hire Presidio County Attorney Rod Ponton as the new city attorney “effective immediately.” Ponton also serves as city attorney for Pecos, Toyah, Balmorhea and Presidio, and Presidio County Attorney. He was Alpine city attorney from 2005 to 2013.

Ponton immediately took his seat at a table reserved for the city attorney.

Before the vote on the city manager, Stephens also offered a resolution, which passed, stating that the mayor does not vote except to break a tie or in an emergency.

Ponton presented a lengthy treatise on the City Charter and legal cases over the ability of a mayor to vote. Former Mayor Jerry Johnson, a member of the original City Charter Commission, said the commission was firm in its belief that the mayor does not vote except to break a tie or in case of an emergency.

The charter states the mayor is the “head of the city government for all ceremonial purposes … but shall have no administrative duties.”

Johnson said the commission also was adamant that the charter could not be amended by a city council, a city attorney or anyone else. It could be amended only by a vote of the citizens in a general election.

“And we have never changed the amendment process,” Johnson said.

Ramos said the charter may need to be amended because it is “ambiguous.” He said a previous mayor, Mickey Clouse, had argued that the mayor can vote on some items and asked for a clarification from the Texas Municipal League which said “it depends on the interpretation.”

He said he has sought a Texas Attorney General’s opinion through District Attorney Sandy Wilson.

The charter says the mayor can vote only to break a tie or in an emergency. Council can hire and fire a city manager on an “affirmative vote of a majority of the full city council.”

Ramos said McKamie told him that “full” council meant that included the mayor, and that it would take four votes to make a majority.

But Ponton and Johnson both argued that the earlier clause saying the mayor could vote only to break a tie or in an emergency clearly indicated a “full” council was the five councilors and not the mayor. Ponton said the charter says “four or five times” that the mayor does not vote except in specific cases, and refers to “mayor and council” elsewhere when it refers to all six members.

After voting to dismiss Garza, the council voted to name City Secretary Cynthia Salas the acting city manager. She had served one term on the council and later was named secretary.

In other action, council agreed to use the figures in the $12.87 million 2018-19 budget for a “baseline” for a proposed budget for 2019-20, saying it could be amended later. Discussions have indicated the new budget would be “just shy of $13 million,” he said.

Stephens said council had met earlier in the day for a budget workshop, and several items still could not be obtained. He said the financial side of the staff has a lot of work ahead to hammer out a completely new budget. Employees who had resigned after conflicts with Garza included Finance Director Megan Antrim.

Stephens said the 2018-19 budget was “balanced and meets our needs.”