All last week, anchors on 24/7 cable news quizzed political scientists, historians, reporters, pundits and one another on how the federal government shutdown will end. Our nation’s leaders seem beyond all serious compromise, reduced to blame games and fierce partisanship. But then who are we to judge? For example, how will months of fighting between Hewitt City Council members and the community end? Hewitt city politics may not eclipse scandal-a-day Washington — only seven members sit on the town council, after all — but they’re giving it a good old college try.
Depending on who’s talking, this whirlpool of intrigue and skullduggery erupted last spring amid some council discussions about downsizing certain administrative positions; picked up steam when some high-level city staffers decided to fight back using some of the all-male council’s own boorishness and obvious chauvinism to cry gender discrimination; accelerated to light speed when a romantic affair between the city manager and his second-in-command surfaced in the public dialogue; then simmered amid damning allegations the mayor and his cronies were not-so-craftily discussing city business in direct violation of state open-meetings law, recorded by the mayor pro tem in the name of public transparency. Texas Rangers are investigating the latter charge, apparently ad nauseam. Expect their findings sometime this century.
Where else in government lately, other than maybe the White House or Congress, can you hear a citizen — heck, self-described “widow woman” and Hewitt City Hall court administrator Patty Laxson — complain publicly as we heard last week in council chambers: “It kinda seems like all this got blown out of proportion when there were questions about salaries. Well, I’m going to tell y’all just like I told the attorney: You don’t do evaluations on someone you’re sleeping with. I don’t give a crap who you are. You don’t do that. And when I heard that the City Council knew about the affair, I was so disappointed. I thought, ‘Well, they deserve what they give them.’ ”
Consider, too, new city attorney Mike Dixon’s exasperated lament at City Hall last week that certain standards of behavior really shouldn’t have to be spelled out for city administrators, council members or anyone else in this day and age: “But I guess every year I add to the template for city manager agreements new things I never thought I’d have to say [or put] into an actual agreement like, ‘Don’t sleep with your employees’ or ‘Don’t say sexist things’ — you know, things you used to think, ‘Hey, I’m pretty sure my city managers are [not] going to do this.’ Well, I’m starting to put those in along with complying with the code of ethics they’re supposed to live by.”
After last Monday night’s rambling discourse by clearly ailing Dixon about his own investigation of charges and counter-charges dotting the Hewitt City Hall narrative, plus borrowings from an earlier investigation by a Fort Worth attorney specially commissioned by the council last year to investigate complaints, some council members and community folks voiced weariness at all the fighting. They pleaded for unity after so many months of combat. They said everyone in Hewitt, a city of 14,000 once championed by Money magazine as the second best place in Texas to live, was sure better than this.
Yet many speaking couldn’t resist taking one more shot at someone else in the town feud.
For instance, strapping actor and Republican activist Kurt Krakowian, whose appointment to the council in March 2018 preceded the outbreak of controversy (and who resigned in July after the council was consumed in uproar), took to the lectern during Monday’s public commenting to apologize for an outburst last spring, duly noted in Dixon’s report and roundly condemned: “There is no excuse that I could have, no way I should have done that. It was very unprofessional of me and I am very, very sorry. I don’t know what else to say. If I could take it back, if I could roll back time, that’s one thing I would do, but unfortunately I can’t. It happened, so all I can do is move on.”
Then Krakowian took a dig at the news media (including the Tribune-Herald) for not fact-checking press releases about city staff complaints targeting council members from then-City Manager Adam Miles. Krakowian neglected to note that the Tribune-Herald published Krakowian’s own June 2, 2018, account of happenings — and that the Trib pressed for facts through time-consuming open-records requests to surmount city roadblocks placed in the paper’s path.
On the other side of the debate, Erica Bruce, whose special election to Krakowian’s vacant council seat was fueled by outrage over council intrigue, questioned what she criticized as the chauvinist tenor of Dixon’s report: “For example, it’s offensive and I was disappointed to see the term ‘live-in girlfriend’ used in this report in reference to one of the parties involved. It’s unprofessional at the very least and can be perceived as gender bias. Why was the term ‘live-in boyfriend’ not used when referring to the other party involved? Neither of those terms is professional and [they] add no pertinent information to the report.”
Community member Ann Schiltz, a retired educator, pleaded for more information, even beyond Dixon’s scathing findings; the embarrassing and disturbing facts pried loose over time by the Tribune-Herald’s public information requests; the volley of formal staff complaints and allegations amidst all this, whether they were prompted by the council’s allegedly discriminatory behavior or as part of an alleged City Hall conspiracy against certain council members; and then-City Manager Adam Miles’ 1,900-word letter to council members about his personal fears of burly Hewitt Mayor Ed Passalugo after Miles’ complaining of the mayor’s conduct.
Schiltz worries about corners and crevices of controversy not yet revealed: “We need to see both sides of the picture, so we can draw good conclusions. This is weird. It’s like [a trial] where one lawyer gets to present and then you get the verdict. No. We need to hear all sides because if you leave things out, if you don’t tell everything, we don’t know. We need more information.”
No one should have really expected anything different, given the fact Dixon — highly respected attorney for McLennan County — was immediately pegged as being hired in September to whitewash the mayor and his council allies of complaints leveled against them, just as Dixon’s predecessor, highly respected Charlie Buenger, came to be pegged as carrying water for the now former city manager and two senior city administrators in the cross hairs. Buenger got canned by the mayor and his council allies last fall, though it took two meetings to commit the coup de grâce, owing to the mayor’s bungling the job first time around. Miles stepped down in November with an $88,000 settlement.
It’s been quite the saga, including such revelations as the fact the mayor and a councilman were caught exchanging an emailed joke about women’s vaginas, which certainly lent weight to formal complaints of gender discrimination by two female city administrators. Even so, Dixon sought to demonstrate Monday that most of these complaints were flimsy and assembled by the city manager and his top female lieutenants in a conspiracy to humiliate and cower the mayor and his allies and to discourage any council thoughts of administrative pruning.
The complaints elicit very different responses from different people. One of them: Mayor Pro Tem Steve Fortenberry.
“All the citations and complaints these ladies are talking about, I’ve witnessed nearly every one of them,” Fortenberry told me. “I’ve seen these myself and heard these guys talk. What I think it was, back in March and April the city put on a presentation on city management for the employees and the council was invited. And in March and April I have never seen more demeaning remarks from [Mayor] Ed Passalugo to these ladies. I just cringed at things he said — not just what he said but the way he said it.”
A few lessons present themselves amidst all this back-and-forth evidence and arguing:
Keep your hands off the hired help: Romance happens, and sometimes between a supervisor and his direct subordinate. But if such a relationship develops, someone must resolve the matter. These situations almost never end well. You’d think the Clinton White House might have driven this point home in spectacularly sordid fashion. If you’re the boss and you have a relationship like this percolating away at City Hall, it will impact how other city employees feel over time, especially if your romantic partner’s salary increases by 78 percent over three and a half years amid a blaze of job titles. And it will leave such a city manager, no matter how talented and how charismatic (and Miles is both), extremely vulnerable at some point when the city manager least needs to be vulnerable.
There’s disagreement about when the council learned of the romantic relationship between City Manager Miles and Katie Allgood, managing director of administration, though employees recognized it before the council did. “But regardless,” Dixon said, “whenever it was learned about, there should have been an ultimatum given: ‘If you’re going to have a relationship and be one and two in the city [administration], one of the two of you has got to go.’ I can’t think of any organization where that would be allowed. You know, especially when you’ve got a cluster of titles like HR director and this and that, where would any employee take a complaint about Ms. Allgood? Can’t take it to her boyfriend.”
The sworn Jan. 2 affidavit of city finance assistant Regina Fox makes this clear, especially regarding Allgood’s rapid promotion to managing director of administration: “Obviously, many employees talked about how this was unfair. Specifically, that in less than 20 months, this young lady fresh out of Baylor [University] had gone from a part-time, $9-an-hour intern position to acting like she was second in command of the city with a salary of $75,504 and benefits. Katie now makes an annual salary of $79,310.40.”
Hewitt Police Chief and acting city manager Jim Devlin’s affidavit is particularly damning. In it he explains that he sought to convince the city manager, whom he describes as a friend, of the rationale of bringing the affair to the attention of the City Council for its input on how to resolve the matter: “Ms. Allgood’s raises, promotions and titles were extraordinary, unlike I have seen in my almost 24 years of municipal government experience. No one rises through a municipal organization so quickly, especially when they do not have the required credentials and/or experience needed.”
Even Councilwoman Erica Bruce, whose election from a field of eight candidates for a single seat bolsters community beliefs that council leadership handled the crisis in hamfisted fashion, acknowledged the problem in city administration, even as she correctly faulted council inaction: “A workplace relationship between a boss and a direct subordinate employee would not be a practice acceptable in corporate America. Upon being made aware of the situation, the council was the only party that had any power to resolve that situation.” An ultimatum to correct the problem should have been given.
City court administrator Patty Laxson’s indignant comment to the council Monday night highlighted again just how the romantic relationship and Allgood’s rise through City Hall ranks (while also pursuing studies at Baylor University) impacted others, even after Allgood in February 2018 signed an affidavit confirming the relationship was consensual to reassure the mayor and another councilman concerned about a sexual harassment suit: “Then I heard, and of course always hearsay, that the city attorney said it’s fine, that she’s signed an affidavit that she won’t sue the city. You still don’t have one and two running the city. Y’all know that. It’s just frustrating to me. I guess, you know, I’m just older. I’m a widow woman. I have to work and I’m not a Baylor grad and I don’t have great education, but I do a very good job of running that courtroom and I have for many years. I don’t have to have praise. I know what I do and I do very well at it.”
Elected officials must treat others with respect: Good leadership means good management — and that means demonstrating a measure of respect for others, including subordinates. Unless you’re an egomaniac, lack a shred of empathy or press some narrow and maniacal agenda, it’s easy to show respect and courtesy and so insanely inexpensive to do so. Dixon suggests formal complaints about the mayor were exaggerations of what were obvious slights or insensitive but innocuous remarks and gestures. The fact complaints came only after certain city administrators learned of council discussions about downsizing raises at least some questions about their merit.
Example: A month after a training session in which the mayor was visibly irked after the female parks coordinator drained the last of the coffee, the parks coordinator complained that the mayor, at a council workshop, “hovered over me and aggressively threw his hand toward me demanding I shake his hand. I knew he would not leave my presence until I shook [his] hand, so I complied. I felt very uncomfortable, vulnerable and powerless.”
Dixon concedes the mayor is not the most charismatic sort but that such a gesture hardly constitutes a threat: “I shake hands every day with people I don’t trust any farther than I can throw them. But I shake hands with them because that’s the way it is, especially if they sit on the dang council.” Yet as Councilwoman Bruce remarked, council members also must ensure that, whatever flawed strategy is being pursued in city administration, council leaders should ensure they’re not creating “an atmosphere of disparaging, demeaning, intimidating and retaliatory behavior.”
Mayor Pro Tem Fortenberry vigorously insists the findings of Julia Gannaway, the Fort Worth attorney investigating complaints earlier, found more fault with Passalugo’s and Krakowian’s behavior — and that Dixon’s report cherry-picks facts to leave top city administrators appearing more culpable. That said, Gannaway did sign off on Dixon’s report. Her signature is affixed to it along with Dixon’s.
“Julia Gannaway was actively involved in this report,” Dixon said after summarizing his bracing findings at City Hall Monday night. “The reality is I know I don’t have any credibility with some people on this council and some people in this room. But apparently Julia Gannaway does. So I asked her to sit in with me and I showed her what I had and she showed me what she had. And she didn’t know a lot of stuff going on before she started talking to people. She didn’t even know about the relationship till she got her first interview or was getting ready to come down here and interview. So there’s a lot of things that came up during that. You have to understand also that she was understandably concerned about retaliation [against city employees who were interviewed]. She didn’t want anybody to be retaliated against. I know there was a blowup in this council room and that shouldn’t have happened and shouldn’t have been allowed to happen. Not much way to stop it from starting unless somebody exercises better self-control, but there is a way to stop it from continuing.”
Dixon’s definitely correct on one point: “Intercommunication skills are very important. The communication style that is gruff or impatient can be perceived differently depending on the listener’s sensibilities, you know? Kind of depends on how you grew up, what your bosses have been like in the past, what you’ve been like as a boss. However, it is almost never an effective style of communication. Training in this area is imperative for the council.”
Leadership is also imperative: One marvels at town councils where mayors are tapped from council ranks based on dubious qualifications such as “Oh, well, it’s Clyde’s turn to be mayor.” So often individuals selected in such manner turn out to be abysmal at properly eliciting everyone’s opinion on an issue, keeping spirited debate fair and respectful and knowing when it’s time to end the discussion and take a vote if any. This also means seizing the moment and rallying others to reset tempers and put aside resentment.
Further revelations loom, including findings about whether the mayor and some council members discussed city business in so-called “walking quorums” in violation of state open-meetings law. And Steve Fortenberry still hopes the Julia Gannaway findings can be aired for the public one day.
Who will lead this community out of furor? Maybe new City Manager Bo Thomas, fresh from the job in Bellmead. Maybe someone who wins in the May city elections. Maybe someone else. When I was at City Hall Friday, kinetic Ann Schiltz was zipping into the library when she paused to show me her list of actions the new city manager should pursue to rally council, city staff and community. She asked me to keep her advice off the record till they’re shown to Thomas.
Councilwoman Bruce offered some guideposts in her statement Monday night: “In my opinion, to begin to reconcile and rebuild, we have to acknowledge several things: During his tenure with the city, our former city manager did great things for this city as evident in the positive changes and amenities we have enjoyed over his tenure with the city and his yearly evaluations rating him as ‘exceeding expectations.’ The issues with personnel that were not remedied by the council allowed for the development of an untenable management strategy. This creates undue stress and insecurity with our current employees and needs to be resolved immediately to mitigate any additional loss of experience and expertise for the city. This personnel issue — while not an acceptable policy in any workplace — does not justify or excuse the demeaning, disparaging, intimidating and retaliatory behavior of the mayor and some council members towards women on the city staff. This should not be tolerated in any environment and the lack of action in this regard is perceived as acceptance and approval of such behavior.”
Fortenberry sees little resolution till the spring elections and a more level-headed council emerges: “That will be the beginning of the healing, at least in Steve’s mind. And I can’t wait to get to May 4 because I’m afraid more damage is going to be done. If you connect the dots since last May, it’s just leading in one direction and it’s a train wreck for the city of Hewitt.”
Till then, as the nation goes, so goes Hewitt. Or so it might seem. To quote 81-year-old Betty Orton, who retired in 1998 after working as Hewitt city secretary for 19 years and even served six months as interim city manager and tried to get elected to the council last year: “I feel like we’re in Washington almost with what we’re going through. I think all of us here have made mistakes. We’ve all said things we wish we’d have never said.”