City terminates two more key employees
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
A pair of Liberty Hill planning department employees were the latest City staff members to be surprised with a letter of termination this week.
City Planner Sally McFeron, who led the Planning Department up until last fall when David Stallworth was hired and placed in charge of the department, along with Building Inspector Jonny Ubelhor were provided with notices of termination citing “unsatisfactory” job performance and specifically assigning blame to them both for the missed inspection that caused delays and concern over the safety of the new Wetzel Park Splash Pad.
Both have defended their actions on the project, and both said they had not previously received any notice or reprimand regarding poor job performance. Both received what they identified as positive reviews – Ubelhor in March and McFeron in May – with McFeron receiving a salary increase.
“I just got a performance review in May and a 4 percent raise over how great a job I was doing, done by David Stallworth, my direct supervisor,” she said.
But in her termination letter, McFeron was told, “The grounds for this termination are your insufficient knowledge for the basic duties of your position, poor project management skills, and lack of communication.”
McFeron and Ubelhor join former Police Chief Maverick Campbell and former City Secretary Barbara Zwernemann – as well as former City Administrator Greg Boatright and former EDC Executive Director Lance Dean who both resigned under pressure – as casualties of what has turned into an overhaul of City staff by Mayor Rick Hall.
For Ubelhor, the termination came out of the blue and he said it all points to the issues with the splash pad.
“This just all happened at the end when this splash pad thing came up and they needed somebody to take the fall,” Ubelhor said.
McFeron, who worked for the City five years, said trouble has been stewing for months with Hall, and that the problem with the splash pad was nothing more than an excuse.
In a twist that raises questions on who was involved in making the decision to terminate McFeron, when Human Resources Director Becky Wilkins and Chief Operating Officer Lacie Hale showed up at the Planning Department Tuesday to terminate her, McFeron’s supervisor, Planning and Development Director David Stallworth,had been asked to come to City Hall to meet with Hall. According to McFeron, Stallworth returned after the meeting unaware she or Ubelhor had been terminated.
Stallworth declined to comment to The Independent on the matter, asking that all questions be directed to Wilkins or Hale.
Echoing the general allegations leveled by Zwernemann and Campbell, McFeron said Hall has created a hostile work environment, and she corroborated allegations he has been seen carrying a gun at City Hall, drinking to excess and being belligerent toward City staff.
“The guy carries a gun,” she said of Hall. “He’s intimidating, he is a liar and I’ve watched him do all this. What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to deal with this? My bad is not reporting him when I talked to the Texas Rangers in late April, when I called and asked what I do about this guy. They said the problem is I did not call law enforcement when something was happening. He’s my boss, he has control of the Council, he carries a gun. What am I supposed to do?”
In spite of that, McFeron said she is now focused on standing up for the taxpayers in Liberty Hill and making sure the truth comes out. She said she has been gathering and preparing information to expose the problems in city government for some time.
“There is a history of this guy wanting to discredit me in the community,” she said of Hall. “He is discrediting my ability to get a future job and now I’ve been terminated. I’m not going to stand for this and I’m not going to lay down over it. I know so much and I’m done.”
She recognizes that she could be fired in Texas for virtually any reason, but she said like the key employees terminated before her, this is a process issue.
“This notice of termination they gave me, I can rebut every single sentence in this notice,” McFeron said. “They can still fire me, in the end they can still fire me. They can fire Lance (Dean), they can fire Maverick (Campbell), they can do whatever they want, but the point of it is that there is a pattern by which they are doing it and the Mayor is not being held accountable for his negligence. This is about right and wrong. I love this community.”
There was also a concern raised by McFeron regarding her retirement benefits as she was required to work one day in July to be vested, but she was terminated June 30. She said Wilkins and Hale assured her in the termination meeting she would not miss that vesting to receive her benefits. McFeron has asked for written documentation affirming that fact, but has yet to receive confirmation in writing.
Who paid contractors?
A critical sticking point in the timeline of actions and determination of who is ultimately responsible regarding the splash pad project was who approved payment to the various contractors on the project prior to the job being completed satisfactorily.
Hall denied he authorized the payment, but would not say who did.
“I am still looking into where the communication came from to approve the final payment of the project,” he wrote to The Independent.
Hall verified last week that all monies had been paid to the architects, engineers and contractors on the project, something Ubelhor said is not common practice.
“You do not pay a contractor without building finals or a CO,” he said. “That does not happen anywhere. Ask any contractor or home builder if they’ve ever been paid in full without getting their CO. They will all tell you no. (Hall) paid them in full. And I know Sally sent the Mayor and Lacie Hale an e-mail in March not to pay the contractors because I told her ‘these guys aren’t playing and you need to make sure they don’t get paid because they aren’t going to fix this.’ This could have been straightened out in March.”
McFeron echoed Ubelhor’s comment about who authorized the payment.
“Usually it would be me and the City Administrator, but the Mayor took me off all projects in November,” she said. “We had no clear direction or communication from the Mayor. He told me I wasn’t involved in all of it.”
The issue boils down to who released the funds, as far as McFeron is concerned.
“The Mayor didn’t do liquidated damages and he released $100,000 in retainage,” she said. “If the Mayor had not released $100,000 in retainage, which was in the contract with J2, then the City of Liberty Hill would not be paying for bonding that project. Taxpayer dollars should not be spent on fixing this project. What should be taken to fix the problem is the retainage and making that contractor do it.”
Signs of trouble
The termination may have come for McFeron without any official warning in terms of formal reprimand, but she said there have been plenty of instances over the last 12-months and longer of what was to come in what she called an increasingly hostile work environment.
McFeron said she was told explicitly in October, in an episode where she said Hall “blew up” over another issue and yelled at her prior to a Council meeting, saying she was no longer in charge of anything in the City or planning department.
“He was mad because the engineer that was hired to do a traffic impact study for the three-way stop (at CR 279 and Loop 332) also included a traffic impact study for the roundabout,” McFeron said, adding that Hall tore up the report, threw it to then-City Secretary Zwernemann. “I went up to the dais and asked what was going on and if I could help with something and he said ‘No, you can’t help me with anything. From now on you’re not in charge of any projects that have to do with streets, water, wastewater or parks.”
She also cited an incident in January 2019 involving former City Inspector Elias Carrasco, who McFeron said the City is currently attempting to rehire, when he was leaving the City for a new position in Burnet.
“The Mayor called, on Bill Chapman’s phone, from an EDC event in Fort Worth on Jan. 10, 2019, and was trying to get Elias to tell him no one offered him anything to stay,” McFeron said. “At the end of that phone call, (Hall) told Elias ‘I’m going to nail Greg and Sally to the wall.’ Elias immediately came and reported it to me. He reports it to me and reports it to Greg (Boatright). I have a statement from Greg about this.”
At the time, Chapman was president of the EDC Board of Directors.
After the Council voted in June 2019 to give Hall supervisory authority over the municipal officers, cutting then-City Administrator Boatright out of the supervisory chain, McFeron said she attended a meeting where Hall issued a warning to the staff.
“I went to a meeting with (Hall), because Greg (Boatright) was on vacation, and he told all the municipal officers ‘I am in charge, if Greg tells you to do anything you don’t do it’,” she said. “I reported that to Greg and that’s the way the summer went. Then of course Greg gets relieved, or he resigns.”
McFeron was also surprised last November when she learned that the new hire the Council approved for her department in the current budget would be her supervisor. She had run the planning department prior to Stallworth’s employment late last year. When the Council authorized the new position it was for a certified planner, but no mention was made in any action by the Council that the new hire would come in and lead the department.
She said Hall directed her to get with Wilkins on creating a job posting and job description, but when she went to Wilkins she learned the posting had already been made, and she was not told until a meeting with Hall the next day that the new person being hired would be her supervisor.
“The vote of the City Council was only for a certified planner, not for a Senior Director of Planning and they voted that twice, not only then, but they voted it in the meeting where they hired David Stallworth as a certified planner,” she said.
Minutes from both meetings confirm the new position was never referenced as a director position, both times referred to as a certified planner with no explanation of specific duties.
Planting seeds of blame?
Just as the City was quick to make public the results of its investigation of former Police Chief Maverick Campbell, while not turning over other requested information related to his situation, the City Council chose to publicly discuss blame over the Wetzel Park problem, rather than retreat to executive session as it has over every personnel matter that has appeared on the agenda for more than a year.
During the June 22 discussion, Council member Kathy Canady talked about safety and process, but she repeatedly asked who was at fault.
In a back and forth with Stallworth, Canady asked what could have happened had the issue not been discovered, how the problem could have been avoided and regularly brought up the issue of responsibility.
“What I’m saying is we can point fingers and go back and forth,” Stallworth said regarding blame, with Canady interjecting, “It’s an important finger.”
When Stallworth tried to shoulder the responsibility as head of the Development Department, Canady refused to accept that.
“We don’t know who is going to take the hit on this,” she said. “You can volunteer but that’s a Council decision.”
Stallworth explained the process in more detail, recounting what had occurred since last October on the project. Some early delays came from changes in the project itself, as well as drainage issues in relation to other projects ongoing in the area.
“Long story short, there were two to two and a half months of delays as a result of those actions or weather-related delays,” he said, continuing to explain the decision-making process on continuing with the project. “We had one of two options. We can either proceed based on our own judgment that these people are familiar enough with procedure and process and if they are insuring there is going to be a third-party inspection then we are going to rely on them to carry out that promise. The other recourse would have been to take a hard line approach and issue a red tag and do a stop work order.”
But Canady made remark after remark about responsibility for the error, asking who the project manager was on the project.
Stallworth said the project manager would have been McFeron.
“Somebody is in charge of this, right?” Canady asked. “We didn’t just have it out there for kicks and grins.”
Stallworth continued to resist pointing fingers at any particular individual, instead saying the City chose to trust the contractor to do what they promised to do after being questioned by City staff, meeting basic requirements according to code.
At the meeting Hall chose not to point fingers.
“I feel that the City as a whole has dropped the ball in multiple cases in this,” he said. “David (Stallworth) I will say to you as head of that department, and I will say to you Lacie (Hale) as his boss that we need to tighten this process up. If a contractor ever tells us in the future that a third party will do something we red tag it. This has put the City way behind and is costing us money.”
But based on the two letters of termination, the City has placed blame squarely on McFeron and Ubelhor for the missed inspection and delays with the splash pad, even after allegedly telling McFeron last October she would not be in charge of any projects and taking away her leadership of the planning department without explanation.
Ubelhor’s letter stated, “the grounds for this termination was your decision of not issuing a stop work order for the Wetzel Park Splash Pad, followed by the lack of initiative to resolve the issue.”
For McFeron, the problem was cited as an example of her “deficiencies” to “include the Wetzel Park Project, lack of initiative to create policies relative to the Planning Department, including amending the UDC, and inability to properly supervise/communicate with staff.”
On issues such as the updating or finalizing the Unified Development Code (UDC), McFeron pointed out that those are policy decisions that someone in her position would not be leading.
“The UDC, we went through an entire thing with that and every single staff and Council retreat all I’ve said is we’ve got to amend the comprehensive plan, we have to have a land use plan and we have to deal with the UDC,” she said. “These are policies which I can’t do. These are policy decisions the Council has to approve.”
Hall said the City would not answer questions regarding the discipline or termination of employees, but said, without naming McFeron, “Ultimately, the person that was assigned as Project Manager for the city was the responsible party to handle the project and also keep others in the city informed of any misses or concerns that would prevent the project from being on time and on budget.”