After Ponton’s termination, Alpine considers new city attorney candidates

“What was Rod working on?” Alpine city councilmember Rick Stephens asked at one point. “Mayor, did you ask Rod to go work that?”

ALPINE — At an Alpine City Council meeting on Tuesday night, officials considered new candidates for city attorney to replace Rod Ponton, who was dismissed by the city last year. Three candidates have stepped forward, including former District Attorney Sandy Wilson.

Council also offered more context on Ponton’s dismissal, which happened in November after executive-session meetings on the issue. Tensions had been simmering between the city and its attorney throughout the year, especially as supporters of both the Alpine Police Department and the Brewster County Sheriff’s Office accused each other of misconduct.

The details of that dispute are convoluted, as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported. But Alpine City Council was particularly upset with one thread in that controversy: In public documents, including a letter to city officials, Ponton had accused Alpine Police Department of a “repeated pattern of police misconduct,” including arresting people without cause.

Council asked Ponton to provide evidence for his claims — and at a city council meeting in November, Ponton gave a brief presentation. He said that Brewster County prosecutors had declined more than 43% of APD cases due to probable cause issues, indicating the police department was “performing more poorly than other agencies” like the Brewster County Sheriff’s Office and the Texas Department of Public Safety. He said his claims were “backed up by the data” and recommended “there be some more training” for APD on case preparation and legal issues.

Council wasn’t impressed. Councilmember Rick Stephens asked whether Ponton had asked Brewster County Attorney Steve Houston to attend a city meeting, so that city officials could hear his take on these concerns. Ponton said he had not.

“Why have you not done that?” Stephens said. “You were asked to do that at the last meeting.”

“Steve Houston is an elected public official,” Ponton replied. “I think he can do whatever he wants to do in his office.”

Meanwhile, other city officials were concerned that Ponton was still not providing adequate evidence for his claims. “It’s a pretty pie chart,” City Manager Erik Zimmer said of a graph showing why APD cases were dismissed, “but there’s no data.”

After multiple records requests with APD and county offices, including a records request with the Brewster County Attorney’s office on dismissed APD cases, The Big Bend Sentinel has so far found no concrete evidence of widespread misconduct at APD. On one hand, Ponton’s presentation — if accurate — does show that APD cases were dismissed at a much higher rate than cases from other agencies.

On the other hand, dismissed cases do not necessarily indicate misconduct or probable-cause violations, especially in light of the feud between city and county officials. Chris Rodriguez, an Alpine city council member and former employee at the district attorney’s office, instead argued that county prosecutors weren’t doing enough to make sure APD cases were ready for court.

At the same meeting in November, Councilmember Maria Curry introduced a motion to terminate Ponton’s contract “effective immediately.” There was a “significant lack of trust” between Ponton and other city officials, she said. Council voted 4-1 to fire Ponton, with Councilmember Martin Sandate voting against.

For some council members, Ponton’s presentation seemed to confirm their worst suspicions. As Stephens put it at last week’s meeting, there “appeared to be a conflict of interest.”

Ponton wanted to “rationalize why APD was wrong in what they were doing rather than helping the city understand what its risks were,” he said. “In my opinion, he created a bigger risk for the city.”

Another issue concerned Ponton’s billing practices. As city council reviewed Ponton’s final bill at last week’s meeting, they questioned some of the charges on his invoice.

“What was Rod working on?” Stephens said of one charge concerning research into candidate eligibility, which was ostensibly done for Mayor Andy Ramos. “Mayor, did you ask Rod to go work that?”

Ramos said he had not. But sometimes, he said, he asked Ponton a question and was later charged for research.

“Just discussing it doesn’t mean, ‘Hey, that automatically gives you the right to go do all this research,’” Ramos said.

Reached for comment on Wednesday, Ponton maintained there were problems at APD and that he was just doing his job.

“I was trying to reduce risk for the city by exposing Alpine Police Department arrests without probable cause so that the Alpine Police Department could reform itself and make sure that citizens’ rights were not violated,” he said. “I wanted to improve their performance.”

Asked about concerns about his bills, Ponton again argued he was doing his due diligence.

“I don’t want to give an off-the-cuff answer to something,” he said. “I want to make sure I’m correct in the advice that I give my client.”

Still, Ponton and city council seem to agree on one thing: The relationship wasn’t working out.

“It improved my life,” Ponton said of the city council’s decision to terminate him. He hadn’t seen “eye-to-eye” with other city officials, particularly Stephens, he said.

At last week’s council meeting, city leaders also briefly discussed the three candidates who have applied to replace Ponton in the role. While city officials are still deciding who they will hire, those discussions provided a window into their thinking.

First up is former District Attorney Sandy Wilson, who lost her bid in the Republican primary last year to Ori White, a Fort Stockton-based lawyer. (White was sworn in on Monday). Wilson, a Marathon resident, has long ties to the area. But Mayor Ramos, while noting that Wilson had a background in criminal law and nursing, said that the city attorney would primarily handle city contracts. That’s “a little different to what she’s used to,” he said.

Next up was Denise Frederick, who at the meeting told council she had “tons of city experience.” Frederick was an assistant city attorney in San Antonio for more than 20 years, from 1995 to 2016, according to her online resume. Later, she also worked for around three years as city attorney for the San Antonio suburb of Leon Valley.

Frederick said she’d “dealt with every aspect of city government,” from zoning to prosecuting minor misdemeanors. But Frederick acknowledged that she didn’t have lawsuit experience, meaning Alpine would likely have to outsource and pay for those tasks.

“I don’t want to give you the impression that’s in my wheelhouse when it’s not,” Frederick said at the meeting. “I’m just being honest with you.”

Finally, there’s Greg Wortham, a former mayor of Sweetwater. Taking office in 2007, Wortham left office in 2014 to run as a Democratic candidate in a special election in Texas State Senate District 28. He lost that bid to a Republican.

Wortham, who was also present, said little at the meeting. But according to his online resume, he has experience with both the oil and gas and wind industries.

Starting in 2004, Wortham ran the Texas Wind Energy Clearinghouse, a group that served as a resource and “information exchange” for the wind industry, according to its Facebook page. (The group’s website is no longer active, and its Facebook page hasn’t posted since 2017.) The Sierra Club, a U.S. environmental group, wrote a glowing profile of Wortham in 2014, describing him as “the mayor of wind.” Later, starting in 2013, Wortham also headed the Cline Shale Alliance, a “private group founded to prepare the [Sweetwater] region for the oil workers,” according to The Austin American-Statesman.

After brief remarks from some of the candidates, the council voted to table the vote to replace Ponton to give them time to discuss and learn more, so no hiring decision was made Tuesday night.