The attorney the Hewitt City Council tapped to replace longtime City Attorney Charles Buenger asked the council Monday to postpone his interview, saying he’s not convinced Buenger was properly fired.
Mike Dixon said the council last week voted to pursue representation from his firm, Haley & Olson, without first passing a motion to end services with Buenger & Associates.
“I just don’t want to get involved in a situation where I’m not clear where my boundaries are from the start,” Dixon said. “I want us to start off on the right foot.”
Dixon told the city council he called Buenger early Monday. Buenger, who had represented the city since 1981, told him he’d been fired.
“Whether he feels that way or not I want something on the record that says he’s fired before I come in and interview for a city attorney position,” Dixon said.
Since the council’s abrupt decision last week to change course on legal representation, the city has also been without a prosecutor for its municipal court, forcing two cases to be postponed.
At Dixon’s urging, the Hewitt City Council on Monday approved maintaining prosecutor Kathleen Dow, who works for Buenger & Associates, in the short term to prevent a backup of cases.
“Kathleen believes her firm is terminated,” Dixon said.
City Manager Adam Miles said before the meeting that two cases last week were reset due to the lack of a city prosecutor. Four cases requiring a prosecutor were scheduled for Sept. 5, Miles said. Two of the four cases resulted in a plea, which the judge alone was able to approve, Miles said. The remaining two cases were reset to an uncertain date for future prosecution and consideration due to the lack of a city prosecutor, Miles said.
The apparent initial confusion occurred at a special called meeting Sept. 4.
The 10 a.m. meeting was called by Mayor Ed Passalugo, who joined council member James Vidrine in declaring they’d lost faith in Buenger.
Mayor Pro Tem Steve Fortenberry made a motion, which failed, to postpone any decisions on the city’s attorney.
Vidrine then made a motion to engage Haley & Olson to provide legal services for the city of Hewitt, a motion that passed 4-2. Based on that vote and comments from Buenger, the Tribune-Herald reported last week that Buenger had been fired.
Dixon, who has been a lawyer with Haley & Olson since 1988 and practices in the areas of civil rights litigation and local government law, represents several local entities, including McLennan County. He told the council Monday that it needs to be clear in their decision.
Dixon said he’d prepare an agenda for Sept. 17 to allow the council several options. Those could include firing Buenger & Associates, replacing Buenger with Dixon. Or the council could bring in Haley & Olson to supplement current city legal services.
Most home rule cities spell out in the city charter how to end services with a city attorney, said Waco attorney Dave Deaconson, who represents the city of Lacy Lakeview.
Deaconson said he’s not aware of a home rule city in which a city manager or mayor can hire or fire a city attorney. There must be a vote of the council, he said.
Deaconson said most cities have separate attorneys to serve as city attorney and city prosecutor, though he himself serves as both for Lacy Lakeview.
A city prosecutor focuses on handling all Class C tickets and ordinance violations filed in the city’s municipal court, Deaconson said.
The council’s decision last week to seek new representation came after several months of turmoil on the council. The council in May hired a law firm to do an independent investigation of complaints by city employees and council members against elected officials including Mayor Passalugo.
Passalugo said after the meeting he lost his confidence in Buenger a month and a half ago and it hasn’t improved. He said he wants an attorney that will give the city proper guidance.
“There’s a lot of things going on in the city that the people don’t know about right now,” Passalugo said. “We’re not going to say anything about it because it’s executive session, but it’s going to end up in litigation and there’s going to be some people in trouble. But we want to make sure we get the right attorney so all of a sudden we don’t get roadblocked all the time.”
It was unclear as of Monday whether the council would have the four votes necessary to formally fire Buenger. Fortenberry and Councilman Bill Fuller, who voted against hiring new representation, still support Buenger.
After Monday’s meeting, Councilman Travis Bailey said he wanted to “ponder for a little bit” on whether the city should keep Buenger.
“You’ll eventually see that we’re very transparent,” Bailey said. “I think if they’ll just bear with us they’ll see.”
Fuller said Monday that he does not want to end services with Buenger.
“It’s a bunch of b.s.,” Fuller said. “I think it’s more personal. I know it’s not professional. Mr. Buenger is an excellent attorney.”
However, Fuller said, he does think the city needs a third party to review several things occurring at the city.
Fortenberry said he’s glad the city postponed Dixon’s interview to slow the process.
“I think in the last several weeks we’ve had a rush on everything all the decisions we’re having to make,” he said. “What they’ve done to Charlie Buenger is wrong.”
Fortenberry said he hopes by the end of this “we get to keep Adam Miles.”
“I think that as I’d said earlier, that they are picking us off, not me, but the people that are involved in this, one at a time,” he said.
Fortenberry said he believes Passalugo is trying to shift the blame away from the complaints filed against him. Fortenberry filed a complaint against Passalugo in May alleging Passalugo had gathered consensus among council members outside of public meetings, in violation of open meetings laws.
City employees have filed at least 12 separate complaints against elected officials, including Passalugo, Vidrine and Kurt Krakowian, who resigned in July.