Liberty Hill Police transfer signals possible dispute at City Hall
By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM
Liberty Hill joined 11.66 percent of surveyed cities last month when it took supervision of the police department out from under the city administrator and made it a direct responsibility of the mayor.
The Independent surveyed 60 Texas cities that have the same municipal government structure as Liberty Hill, which also employ a city administrator who is normally tasked with the supervision of city departments.
The cities, which were surveyed by phone, were Type A General Law cities like Liberty Hill. All of those reported having a city administrator or city manager. Of those 60 cities, seven reported that the police chief answered directly to the mayor bypassing the administrator.
Those cities included Cockrell Hill, Spring Valley Village, Hickory Creek, Rice, Valley Mills, La Vernia and Jewett.
A Houston-based municipal law attorney says the transfer of authority over a city department from the administrator to the mayor signals a dispute between the administrator and the department head.
This transfer is what the city does “to keep working,” said Municipal Attorney Art Pertile, a partner in the Olson & Olson law firm. Regardless of the location, “if you have that going on, you have an internal dispute between the administrator and the mayor” or “between the city administrator and the department.”
Pertile provides legal counsel to cities across the state on all areas of municipal law. At various times, he has served as president of the Texas City Attorneys Association, director of the State Bar of Texas Government Lawyers Section, and has served as the City Attorney for Waco.
Following a two-hour executive session on May 8, the Liberty Hill City Council voted to amend Police Chief Maverick Campbell’s employment contract stating that the Chief reports directly to the Mayor.
The change meant City Administrator Greg Boatright would no longer have supervisory authority over the chief or the police department. As Administrator since 2013, Boatright has overseen all departments and employees of the city. This was also the case under two city administrators before him.
On May 9, Boatright told The Independent that he and former Assistant City Administrator Amber Lewis had disagreed with the Chief’s multiple requests for additional personnel that came in the middle of the fiscal year. Boatright said the disagreement wasn’t about whether the additional officers were needed, it was a matter of timing suggesting the additional requests should have been addressed at budget time as is the case for other city departments. The City’s fiscal year runs October through September, and budget planning for the new fiscal year begins in the summer.
Boatright 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.
Boatright said that he supported the ideas, but that they needed to be addressed when the entire budget was being drawn alongside the needs of other city departments.
“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,” he said.
Boatright added that during his supervision of Campbell, “he didn’t always like the answers I gave him.”
Campbell said this week that he did not “recall there ever being resistance” in the discussions he had with Boatright that mentioned the school officer and code enforcer.
He described their talks as open-ended “brainstorming.”
“I don’t think anything was discussed to take action in the middle of the budget year,” Campbell said.
“Anytime you’re having any kind of discussions that involve improvements or staffing, both sides are going to have input,” he said, adding that discussions about new positions were about preparing for the growth of the city, which comes from what he said is his visionary approach in running a law enforcement agency.
Campbell said, as an example, as the city grows it will “need a detective or two” in the next five years.
“There was no discussion (with Boatright) that said: I need this now, we need this now. There were discussions of preparing for the future,” he said.
He continued, “I have never asked for anything that is unreasonable. I believe in needs versus wants and being a good steward of the taxpayer’s dollars, but
I also have to keep in mind what is the impact on public safety.”
Mayor Connie Fuller has also said that the deployment of two Liberty Hill police sergeants to Canton after tornadoes leveled parts of that northeast Texas community was also a factor in the decision to move the department under the mayor’s supervision. She said that she authorized the deployment at the Chief’s request when he said Boatright and Lewis couldn’t be reached.
Mayor Fuller told The Independent that her responsibility in the new supervisory role includes the “approval of police department expenditures.”
In a later email, she wrote that she and the Chief “talk daily and have a weekly update on everything that is going on with the department.”
Later, she wrote, “I intend to do everything possible to make (the police) department thrive and prosper in our community. Chief Campbell has (made) some remarkable improvements in the department and in community and county involvement. The council and I look forward to working with the Chief to help him continue the great work he is doing.”
After the initial decision May 8th, Campbell said that nothing would change in his job or the department’s operation. The only difference would be who he reports to.
Boatright said the move is Council’s decision, and that city staff will “work within the outlines of what Council charges us with.”
Fuller said that this chain of command is not uncommon, and occurs in cities like Bertram, Florence, Blanco and Kempner.
The newspaper’s survey showed Kempner is the only city among those with a city administrator, though this person is currently on paid leave. In Bertram, Florence and Blanco, there is no city administrator and the police chief answers directly to the mayor.
Mayor Fuller said the transfer in Liberty Hill occurred as part of a process to bring job descriptions, local ordinances, and employment contracts in alignment with each other and with state law.
While a 2006 municipal ordinance specifies the administrator as the police chief’s supervisor, a different ordinance adopted in 2009 says the mayor shall be the direct supervisor.
A statement read by Fuller at a council meeting May 22 didn’t reference those local ordinances, but pointed to sections in Chapter 22 of the Texas Local Government Code, outlining the powers of the mayor, as providing the authority for “additional duties regarding the supervision and direction of our employees.”
She pointed specifically to Section 22.042(b) of Chapter 22, which states that 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.”
In Liberty Hill, the “municipal officers” include the police chief, the city administrator, the assistant city administrator, the finance director and the city secretary.
On May 9, Boatright said he had no discussion with the Mayor prior to the council meeting about the change in the police chain of command. He speculated that the transfer was part of a “a different mindset of the Mayor, especially recently, of taking control.”
For an additional example, he brought up the department head evaluations conducted in the spring by the mayor and council, which he said were unprecedented in Liberty Hill.
In late May, Lewis told The Independent that the City’s employee handbook had been amended by Council in March to designate the assistant city administrator as a municipal officer.
Until then, she said, she had always reported to the city administrator. The designation put her under the direct supervision of the Mayor and Council, bypassing Boatright.
“It was confusing to me because I didn’t know who I was to answer to, and I didn’t know how everyone else was to be supervised,” she said.
Lewis resigned in late May after accepting a position as the city administrator for Rollingwood, a suburb of Austin.
The City of Liberty Hill is currently operating without a finance director, which was Lewis’ primary role, and without an assistant city administrator, which Boatright says will likely not be filled right away.
City legal counsel Laura Mueller said that Chapter 22 covers the evaluations of city officers.
“The way the section is written is more a product of when it was adopted (between 1881 and 1914 and codified in 1986) than a purposeful focus on disciplining employees,” she wrote in an email.
Pertile said “that language makes it clear that the administrative staff reports to the mayor. If they don’t get the job done, it’s up to the mayor.”
This is true for all Type A General Law Cities in Texas, and that the “language does not change when there is a city administrator.”
Though the Mayor is the ultimate authority, he said, in smaller cities, they tend to work full-time jobs in addition to their mayoral duties.
In these instances, it’s common for the mayor to delegate many of the day-to-day administrative tasks to the city secretary. This is the case in Bertram.
If not the secretary, though, “they hire the administrator to do the administrative work rather than the mayor.”
In Liberty Hill’s case, Fuller has a career in real estate.
If the position of city administrator exists, Pertile said that it is “not unusual” for the supervision of a department to be transferred directly to the mayor, “but it occurs when that department head and the administrator have a dispute.”
He added, “I don’t think you’ll find a city attorney that will say anything different.”
Council decisions —such as the change in the police chief’s contract, the designation of the Assistant City Administrator as a municipal officer, and the mayor’s evaluations of department heads—are not a legal question of “yes or no, can or cannot,” Pirtle said, because ultimate authority lies with the mayor and council to maintain the city’s smooth operation.
Boatright was hired in September 2013 as the city administrator, after he had served in an interim role since May of that year.
His contract in September 2013 was opposed by then Mayor Jamie Williamson and Council Member Vicki Brewer, who had run the daily operations of city government and supervised staff since their election in May 2012.