By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
The Mayor described the Council’s decision Monday to change the chain of command for the Police Chief as a simple housekeeping measure. But City Administrator Greg Boatright says the move may indicate that elected officials are seeking more control over city operations.
At the end of a long agenda Monday, the last item marked for discussion during a closed-door executive session concerned, “Personnel matters, including but not limited to the appointment, employment, evaluation, reassignment, duties, discipline, or dismissal of the City Administrator, Assistant City Administrator and Police Chief.”
Comments in support of city administration and Council were shared by the Fire Chief and the President of the City’s Economic Development Corp. Board of Directors at the beginning of meeting.
EDC President Bill Chapman said he was not speaking to Council as the President of the EDC, but rather “as an investor that’s heavily invested in the property in front of Stonewall Ranch.” He said that for years, Liberty Hill was a difficult sell to retailers. But, “things have really stabilized with this council. With the current council and current administration, now people from Dallas, Houston and San Antonio will take our calls.”
Fire Chief Anthony Lincoln said that in his years with Williamson County, he had seen a “rollercoaster of ups and downs” in his Emergency Service District and with the City of Liberty Hill. But WCESD #4 was able to overcome its many challenges, he said, “thanks to the skill set of Greg Boatright, Amber Lewis, and many of the other people that they work with day to day. Thank you for allowing us to be a part of this.”
After a nearly two-hour regular meeting, the Council and legal counsel left for the closed session. Then, minutes before 10 p.m., Council reconvened and passed a unanimous motion to amend the Chief’s employment contract showing he will no longer report to the City Administrator. Instead, he will report directly to the Mayor.
Boatright told The Independent Tuesday that “the Mayor (Connie Fuller) has yet to explain to me the reasoning for the decision.”
The city administrator is tasked with overseeing every department and all employees of the city. The Police Department will become the first exception.
Fuller said that the change approved Monday will be reflected in Campbell’s employment contract. Amendments to the contract and job description, which were considered as housekeeping, will be prepared by the legal department. Fuller said city attorneys are combing through local ordinances, handbooks and other documentation to make sure language aligns with each other and with “requirements put forth by state law.”
A copy of the amendment to the contract was not available at press time Wednesday.
Legal Counsel Laura Mueller, who Fuller said has been integral in the effort to help this process, wrote in an email to The Independent that the state statutes involved come from Chapter 22 of the Local Government Code.
“The sections must be read together, but the language in the Mayor statute may be useful,” she wrote, citing 22.042: “The mayor shall inspect the conduct of each subordinate municipal officer and shall cause any negligence, carelessness, or other violation of duty to be prosecuted and punished.”
She then cites Sec. 22.071. “OTHER MUNICIPAL OFFICERS. (a) In addition to the members of the governing body of the municipality, the other officers of the municipality are the secretary, treasurer, assessor and collector, municipal attorney, marshal, municipal engineer, and any other officers or agents authorized by the governing body.”
In describing the relevance of Sec. 22.071, Mueller said, “The sections refer to a ‘marshal’, but that is the predecessor to the Police Chief in Type A General Law Cities.”
In one section of Liberty Hill’s own Code of Ordinances, the mayor is specified as the supervisor of the police. In another section, that role is said to belong to the city administrator.
A 2006 ordinance (Section 9.04.022) concerning the police department states that “The chief of police shall be supervised by the city administrator and shall serve at the pleasure of the city council.”
Meanwhile, an ordinance adopted in 2009 (Section 1.04.001) outlining the powers of the mayor reads, “The city hereby establishes that the chief of police, municipal court administrator, and code enforcement officer shall report directly to the mayor and city council to the extent allowed by law. The mayor shall be the direct supervisor for each position.”
Tuesday, Boatright said that he was not aware of the ordinance the Mayor was referring to.
“I thought the procedure we were pursuing was standard operating procedure,” he said. “All departments report to the city administration under general law, and Council does all the hiring and firing.”
However, Boatright said the move is “Council’s decision,” and that the city staff will “work within the outlines of what Council charges us with.”
Boatright said that in discussions with Campbell over personnel and budget items, “He (Campbell) didn’t always like the answers I gave him.”
A main source of disagreement was adding funding for new positions mid-way through a budget cycle.
He said Campbell had wanted to convert an officer to code enforcement, and in another instance, to station an officer at the high school as a school resource officer.
Both, Boatright said, would have required filling in a new position mid-way through the fiscal year.
It can be “difficult to find funding mid-way through the year,” he said. “That’s just not the way the budget works. We want all of our departments to live within a budget for the year and address needs at the new budget.”
The City’s fiscal year runs Oct. 1 through Sept. 31. Budget preparations typically begin mid-summer.
“Council has been very generous,” Boatright said. “The police department budget has seen a huge increase in their budget.”
Boatright said he supported the creation of the new positions requested by the Chief, but that they needed to be addressed when the entire budget was being drawn alongside the needs of other city departments.
Ultimately, Boatright did not take those proposals to Council.
Since taking office in June 2016, Campbell has overseen an expansion in the police department’s operations. The police department has grown to eight full-time officers from a previous peak of six. The amount of unpaid, reserve officers has risen from three to six.
The department’s most recent hire in February, which was funded in their budget, allowed the force to move to a complete 24-hour patrol.
Records show that the department’s current budget at $735,500 compared to $591,000 the previous year.
Campbell said that the change in supervision is a clarification of the “chain of command.”
“Nothing really changes as far as what I do,” he said. “Even before all this occurred, as far as anything involved with the safety of the public, I always kept the City Administrator and the Mayor informed.”
Campbell said that as a department head, he was hired by the City as “basically a law enforcement consultant.
“They were rest assured that my decision making is to do what’s in the best interest of the city, being the good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars,” he said.
On May 1, Campbell deployed two patrol sergeants to Canton in Van Zandt County in response to a statewide request for assistance from emergency responders in the aftermath of tornadoes.
Fuller said that when Gov. Greg Abbott declared the state of emergency there, Campbell was unable to get in contact with Boatright to secure authorization to send the officers. He was also unable to reach Lewis.
Fuller said the Chief then called her. She gave the green light to go ahead.
Fuller said that the episode “was a factor in the decision.”
“We had a discussion about this and we came up with the plan to get the attorney to go ahead and check it out,” she said. “We were going to amend his (Campbell’s) contract when we realized he needed to be under me anyway.”
Campbell has said he will seek funds from state and federal government to reimburse the department’s costs of the deployment.
Boatright places the decision Monday in what he sees as a larger context.
“There’s been a different mindset of the Mayor, especially recently, of taking control,” he said. “And I think this is part of that.”
As an example, Boatright pointed to the evaluation of department heads recently undertaken by the Mayor and City Council. He said this was the first time this had happened in Liberty Hill.
Fuller said that it is possible that further decisions could be derived from Monday’s executive session discussion, but that no decision has been taken.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with firing them (Boatright and Lewis),” she said. “Some of the community seems to think that’s what’s happening, but that’s not correct.”