City staff members come to Hall’s defense

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Editor’s Note: It is the policy of The Liberty Hill Independent not to use anonymous sources except in the case where journalists believe a source’s safety is at risk if a name is revealed.

By MIKE EDDLEMAN
Managing Editor
At least two City staff members and a Council member have come forward, attempting to refute accounts reported last week that Mayor Rick Hall has been intoxicated during at least two recent city events – the Christmas party and Council retreat at Canyon of the Eagles – and was loud and used vulgar language in those instances.

Hall flatly denied the accusations, saying it never happened.

“It did not occur that way, not at all,” he said. “Not one bit of that is remotely true except for I was at the Christmas party and I was at the Canyon of the Eagles. That’s the only thing in those articles that is remotely true.”

Pointing to a number of social media comments following the publication of the initial report of Hall’s behavior on the website of The Independent on Feb. 28 (see the story), Hall claimed others have also said the allegations are false.

“Nothing has been validated,” Hall said. “There’s even been people coming out on Facebook saying that they were there at most, if not all, of these events and these allegations are false.”

But doubts remain due to another person present at the Christmas party speaking up this week, and one key question that has yet to be answered – what does the staff at Canyon of the Eagles know?

The Independent attempted to interview staff at Canyon of the Eagles, and while they were hesitant, they indicated they knew what the call was about.

When staff at Canyon of the Eagles answered the phone and learned the call was from The Independent, the individual’s response was, “I can’t talk about this, hold please.”

When they returned they said no one was available to speak at the time, but they would take a message. When attempting to leave a more specific message, the employee said, “Oh, we know what the call is about.”

A second call on Tuesday resulted in a similar response, with the employee saying, “We’re not going to comment on this issue.”

In separate interviews with The Independent, now five individuals cited being present at one or both of the recent events during which the Mayor appeared intoxicated, and became vulgar, loud and belligerent. At both events, they said they observed Hall wearing a holstered handgun, which they added he wears regularly, including at City Hall and at other city buildings.

Hall denied he was carrying a gun at the two events in question.

“I can tell you I have never walked in to Hell or High Water carrying my gun,” he said. “I will admit it is my freedom to carry my gun by the Second Amendment. I have never walked in there because I respect that 51 percent sign on their door. I do not carry my gun anywhere that I know I will be drinking.”

At a city staff Christmas party, witnesses reported the Mayor was “drinking heavily and was intoxicated. He was stumbling around in the street, and using vulgar language.”

Liberty Hill Events Coordinator Katie Amsler said in an interview Monday that none of the allegations surrounding the Christmas party were true.

“I planned the Christmas party so I was working with the Mayor closely all night just to make sure everything stayed on schedule and everything was flowing and there was absolutely no drunkenness, he was not heavily intoxicated, he was not stumbling and there was no vulgarity,” Amsler said. “And I absolutely did not see a gun on him.”

She said she was not near the Mayor all night, but that due to the strict schedule of the event she was around him a lot. She said Hall left before she did.

“The only time I saw him be loud was when he was trying to rally everyone together so he could speak,” she said.

The most recent witness to come forward to corroborate the initial claims regarding Hall’s behavior at the Christmas party said Hall became angry when he felt others in attendance were not listening to him.

The witness to the alleged incident added that Hall walked out into the street in front of a downtown establishment angry and yelling, and that as they drove away they almost hit him with their car when he came into the street.

Liberty Hill Human Resources and Finance Director Becky Wilkins also said she has never seen Hall act as described by others.

“As the HR person I have never been in a position where when I’ve been in a work session or social setting with the Mayor that I’ve felt like his behavior has gotten out of control or to a point where, from an HR perspective, I’d be concerned,” she said. “There’s nothing rising to a level of concern with me. I was at the Christmas party, I was also at the Canyon of the Eagles event. We were all playing a game on a cell phone called Heads Up. We were all kind of loud and boisterous and it wasn’t like there was one person that was louder than everybody else, boisterous or inebriated or anything. We were all just having a good time.”

City Council member Kathy Canady also said she did not see any of the alleged behavior at the Christmas party.

“I didn’t really see anything out of line,” she said. “I never saw (Hall) do anything that didn’t fit in with the rest of the stuff that was going on at the Christmas party.”

At the City staff and Council retreat held in January at Canyon of the Eagles Resort near Burnet, the witnesses said employees of the resort at one point requested Mayor Hall to leave an activity at the observatory and return to his room. They said guests complained “he was intoxicated, loud, and his language was offensive.”

One source said resort employees also came to the “fire pit” where city staff, their spouses, council members and children were socializing, and requested Hall to control his voice and his offensive language as others had complained.

The reporter representing The Independent, who was also present, saw Hall wearing the holstered handgun at the retreat.

Two others, in separate interviews, corroborated the account of the Mayor’s behavior and vulgarity during the incidents at Canyon of the Eagles and the words he used. They said they had heard the exact language as reported to The Independent, and confirmed that employees’ spouses and children were present at the time the reported offensive behavior occurred at the retreat. One source abruptly left as the language became increasingly offensive. Another chose not to participate at the fire pit because the Mayor’s behavior at previous city events was offensive and made the source ashamed on behalf of city residents.

Wilkins again offered a distinctly different version.

“I was at the observatory and had made a joke later at the fire that the guy at the observatory was the mayor of the observatory and it was his territory,” she said. “He was very rude to all of us. We had used a little light to get down to the observatory and he had even chastised me for having a light. I think Liz Rundzieher had stepped around the corner to have a cigarette and he got upset because she had her lighter. There were two telescopes set up and we were asking about each one and asking if we could see any planets. He was telling us no, I guess that the planets were too far out or something. They were too far away or whatever. None of us were asked to leave at the observatory at all. We all left probably around the same time. I know Nancy Sawyer and I walked out, Liz Rundzieher and Kathy Canady, then I believe Casey Cobb and his wife, and then the Mayor and the Mayor was with, I believe, Councilman Steve (McIntosh) and Matt (Powell) and Levi and the Mayor’s wife.”

She went on to describe what she alleged occurred at the fire pit as well.

“When we got back from the observatory we all went to the fire pit and were sitting around and talking and having a good time, then we started playing the ‘Heads Up’ game on the cell phone, and at no time while I was at the fire was Maverick Campbell or his wife or their children at the fire pit. At no time did I hear the Mayor say (the alleged vulgar quote from the Mayor), not at all. He doesn’t say those kind of things.”

Canady also said she didn’t observe anything related to the allegations about Hall’s behavior at the retreat.

“I can’t say that we weren’t being a little loud,” Canady said, describing a game the group at the fire pit was playing. “I did not hear anything of that nature. I was out there until about 10:30 or 10:45, I mean they are younger than us. Me and Liz decided to head back to our cabins that were side by side. Us old folks went to bed.”

Gun questions
For those who shared these accounts with the newspaper, the common theme was a very real concern about Hall’s display of a handgun he wears regularly. They said they have felt uncomfortable, and at times feared for their safety or the safety of others.

Three of the sources who spoke with The Independent said they regularly see Hall carrying a handgun in City facilities, during City functions, and when driving City vehicles.

For some time, the gun was worn at his side, although now it is worn in a back holster.

Hall’s volatile behavior, as he carries a weapon, is “intimidating in the workplace, but especially when he is drinking,” one source reported.

In the City of Liberty Hill’s Employee Handbook that was updated in May 2019, which was provided to The Independent in response to an open records request, there is language prohibiting weapons in the workplace, in city vehicles, or while attending any events as a representative of the City.

Article 23, Section 2 states:
“CONCEALED WEAPONS POLICY
The City of Liberty Hill does not allow any job applicant, employee, contractor, subcontractor, vendor, agent, or representative to possess, use, conceal, carry, or maintain a concealed weapon or handgun on the City’s premises, except as required by law. Such premises include any portion of the building in which the City is housed, any private or public driveway, sidewalk or street, used in connection with the City’s business, and any vehicle used, owned, or leased by the City. The City also prohibits the carrying of a weapon or concealed handgun on your person while you are rendering any services or attending any event or function relating to your employment with the City or conducting any business on the company’s behalf. This prohibition includes carrying or maintaining a concealed weapon or handgun in a City vehicle used in connection with your employment or brought onto the City’s premises.”

The handbook also includes the following consequences for the behavior:
“If the City has a reasonable suspicion at any time that a concealed handgun or weapon has been maintained, carried, or stored in violation of this policy, the City reserves the right to conduct a reasonable search of the person, work area, personal items, or any vehicle in the possession of or subject to the control of such person to investigate whether or not a prohibited weapon is present. Any employee who witnesses the concealment or possession of a weapon or who witnesses a physical or verbal assault involving another person should report it to their supervisor or the human resources department immediately. Violating this policy or refusing to consent to a reasonable search conducted pursuant to this policy may lead to discipline up to and including termination. Compliance with this policy is also a term and condition of continued employment with the City of Liberty Hill.”

The weapons prohibition is also displayed at the entrances to City Hall and other city buildings, in accordance with state law.

The City responded Saturday to the story in The Independent on its Facebook page with a message Hall said was written by the City’s legal counsel, that the Mayor and Council members are not considered City employees and that there is no signage on City facilities that prohibits the carrying of a firearm.

“I do not carry my gun any place I am not allowed to carry my gun,” Hall said. “I will carry my gun 100 percent of any other time. I do not carry my gun openly as the article stated by some anonymous source that y’all just want to take a story and run without getting facts stated and are they accurate or not.”

This was not the first time Hall’s decision to carry a firearm has been questioned.

“When the previous City Council brought up the fact about me carrying they went to the Texas Municipal League and that’s when they were advised that the Council and the Mayor are not employees of the City and we are not subject to the handbook and there’s no sign here that says I can’t,” Hall said. “There’s no sign at the Forrest Street building. There is a sign at the Municipal Court building which works during the court time frame.”

Open door for concerns
The combination of the presence of a weapon and Hall’s actions create an uncomfortable situation for staff – the original sources claim – saying employees ultimately have no one to go to with concerns or complaints because of the current City hierarchy.

Both Hall and Wilkins argue that there is no validity to concerns on the part of employees about their complaints not being heard or responded to properly.

“There has been no City employees that have come to her with any concerns about my behavior in the City, me carrying a gun, making them feel uncomfortable,” Hall said.

Wilkins was hired as Finance Director in December 2018, and only added the title of Human Resources Director in recent months.

“No employee has ever come to me to complain about (the Mayor’s) gun at any time,” Wilkins said. “While you said earlier today that people associate me with him, I do stand alone, I have an office open door policy and I have other employees that come and talk to me on a regular basis. I’ve told employees they can vent to me, they can bring a complaint to me, they can bring whatever they need to me. We’ll close the door, I’ll listen to them and then I’ll follow through on whatever they ask me to do.”

But Hall questioned how many of the anonymous sources cited their concern over safety compared to the total number of City employees. When questioned about whether a complaint or concern was invalid because it came from a low percentage of the total staff, Hall said no.

“One person’s complaint should be valid, I agree, unless that one person is a disgruntled employee,” he said.

Hall, Wilkins and Amsler all referenced “disgruntled employees” in their interviews on the issue.

Fair treatment?
Hall spent a good portion of the Monday interview with The Independent voicing his frustration with the Friday article as opposed to discussing details of the allegations.

“I just want to say that I didn’t feel it was such breaking news that you couldn’t work with me around my time frame that I’m offering to come talk to you or have a conversation with you about the article before you put it out,” he said. “So in my opinion, I think y’all rushed something without getting the facts.”

Hall added that he will request another investigation in which employees will be questioned about the opinions expressed in the newspaper’s story.

“I have requested the Council to ask Becky to open up an HR investigation on me with our City employees and ask them questions related to this article. Then we’ll find out what really happened,” he said.

He also claimed he was not given the right opportunity to respond to the claims.

“From a journalism standpoint, Mike, you guys just printed a one-sided story,” Hall said. “You didn’t give me an opportunity and multiple times, when I have asked to have you wait and schedule some time with me to do an interview you make it sound like you don’t want to do that, and you don’t have time to do that because the story is so pressing. I don’t feel like this story was very pressing at all and needed to be out at a certain given time. I think y’all ran with the story just to try and make me look bad.”

The Independent sent texts to the Mayor and called Friday morning regarding the issue and asked for an interview. In a voicemail sent early Friday morning he was told of the nature of the article and advised of a deadline.

He first suggested he is not given sufficient opportunity to comment or represent the “other side” on articles, but when pressed, he could not give an example of when he wasn’t contacted for comment.

“I never said you haven’t, but you call me minutes before you have to run the story,” he said. “Maybe investigative reporting should have a little bit more investigating before it is reported.”

Calls to Hall and other Council members are often made Tuesday or even Wednesday morning on the newspaper’s deadline due to Council meetings being held on Monday evening and the challenge of obtaining documents from the City.

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