Look into top city manager candidate reveals checkered past

MARFA – Marfa City Council has offered second-round interviews to two men for the vacant Marfa City Manager position, but a dive into court records and archived Alpine City Council minutes suggests the council overlooked crucial details in its review of one applicant: Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.

The city received around 15 applications and interviewed eight people in the first round. Within weeks, Marfa Mayor Manuel “Manny” Baeza said, the city plans to hold second-round interviews for its two top candidates.

Garcia is one of them.

Garcia’s resume says he received an executive master’s degree in Business Administration from the University of Texas. It also notes decades of city experience, including serving as city manager for Alice and for Fort Stockton, as well as interim city manager for Colorado City, Texas.

But tri-county residents may best remember Garcia for his tenure as Alpine City Manager from 2005 to 2013 — a job from which Garcia was ultimately fired after an audit and investigation involving the Texas Rangers ended in felony charges for an associate, Alpine’s then-Finance Director Ricky Chavez.

In an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel, Garcia admitted that the results of the 2013 Alpine audit weren’t what the city had hoped to see.

“We had some things like people taking loans out and misusing the credit cards, so as the chief executive officer you’re the fall guy,” Garcia said of his firing. “I didn’t know that was going on — not until the audit, which brought [the misuse of public funds] to my attention.”

Jesus “Chuy” Garcia

When asked how Garcia’s firing affected the council’s decision to advance him, Mayor Baeza said he’d heard about the firing but hadn’t confirmed it. The first round of interviews were solely used to learn about the candidates and their experiences, Baeza added.

Certain aspects of Garcia’s experience, though, apparently did not come to light.

In addition to his firing in Alpine, Garcia was previously indicted in 2004 on one charge of theft and one charge of abuse of official capacity, records from the Pecos County District Clerk’s office show.

That indictment, which occurred soon after his tenure as the Fort Stockton City Manager, alleged that Garcia used a city credit card to obtain cash with a value of more than $1,500 but less than $20,000. A judge granted a motion to quash the indictment in December 2004.

During the auditor’s 2013 investigation of Alpine finances, a payday advance program came to light — including an entire “Emergency Payroll Account” of which Garcia, then city manager, says he wasn’t aware. Employees were collecting paychecks early, and the city was not collecting interest on those loans, according to the audit. The city had paid $123,015 in advance to its employees in 2012.

Payroll advances occurred “almost every month,” the audit concluded, adding, “one employee alone drew $24,000 and another $11,650.”

The city’s finance director at the time, Chavez, was ultimately found to have written checks to himself from the city, which he claimed were reimbursements for continuing his education at Sul Ross State University. But he did not actually attend classes there, an investigation found.

Shaw Skinner, the Alpine certified public accountant (CPA) who handled the audit, found a significant deficiency in the city’s internal controls. There was insufficient oversight, which allowed Chavez to write checks to himself and then authorize the payments, Skinner’s findings revealed.

During the April 2013 meeting that led to Garcia’s firing, Skinner claimed Garcia didn’t know about the financial abuses when they occurred. But Alpine council member Carlos Lujan pushed back on that reasoning at the time — arguing that Garcia’s ignorance of crimes was not a justification for keeping him in office.

“Bottom line, Mr. Garcia, you are the city manager,” Lujan said. “You are making good money to supervise and make sure that the city is running well.”

Lujan then introduced a motion arguing that the majority of the council had “lost confidence in the ability of the city manager to properly manage the affairs of the city.” He asked for Garcia’s removal. Council members Mike Davidson and Diana Asgeirsson joined Lujan, and Garcia was fired by a 3-2 vote.

In interviews this week, Davidson and Asgeirsson offered varying perspectives on Garcia and the controversies surrounding him. Asgeirsson had said in 2013 that the city manager was ultimately to blame for the finance director’s transgressions slipping past the city.

These days, though, she’s able to see past that.

“Chuy’s a good guy,” she said. “I think he kind of let people do their jobs without checking into what they were doing. Things got out of hand, people started putting their hands in the till, and he didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late.”

She believes that other than the aforementioned incident, Garcia is a good manager. She even felt that Marfa could benefit from hiring him.

“In general, people, when they do something wrong, they learn from it,” she said. And if Marfa does hire him, “they will get a better person because of it.”

Davidson, on the other hand, has criticized Garcia’s communication skills. He is not pleased with what happened under the city manager’s watch.

Davidson characterized that era of Alpine city government as a very loose operation. “I would adamantly — if I was on the Marfa City Council — not consider him as a finalist,” he said.

Garcia still believes his 30 years in the area and his experiences qualify him for the Marfa job, describing his time in Alpine as a “learning experience.”

In interviews with The Big Bend Sentinel, Garcia offered his explanations for why he has proven so prone to legal controversies over the years. “You go in there with a trust that they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. Then, you find out that you don’t trust people like that and you find provisions where you monitor all those things now.”

Garcia’s resume touts an ability to capture grant funds for infrastructure improvements and an ability to work with governmental agencies to promote community development. He also said he now knows to implement internal controls — which he said could prevent incidents like the one in Alpine in which he became embroiled.

The city manager job has been vacant since former City Manager Terry Brechtel left the position in June. Assistant to the City Manager Peggy O’Brien and City Accountant Dan Dunlap currently share responsibilities as Co-Interim City Managers. Both Garcia and the other candidate, Washburn, said they hope to restart the Marfa comprehensive plan, to create a guide for the city council that is based on the needs and wants of Marfa’s citizens.

At tonight’s Marfa City Council meeting, councilmembers will convene into an executive session regarding city manager interviews, to discuss potential questions for second-round interview candidates.

Stephen Paulsen contributed additional reporting to this story.