Following a decision that has many in the community upset, the Duncanville City Council is working to deal with the aftermath after firing Aretha Ferrell-Benavides after just over two years in her post as city manager.
Her recent firing came by a 4-3 vote of no confidence, headed by Councilman Patrick Harvey, who made the motion for her dismissal. He was joined in the decision to terminate by fellow council members Don McBurnett, Jeremy Koontz, and Greg Contreras, while Mayor Barry Gordon was joined by council members Joe Veracruz and Karen Cherry voted against her dismissal.
In fact, in a recent article in Focus Daily News, Gordon was quoted as saying that while he initially opposed the hiring of Ferrell-Benavides, “I will go on record to say today I have seen no better performance … exceptional performance and dedication to duty that I’ve seen in Aretha Ferrell-Benevides. I am her champion and I have taken heat from certain individuals in this city for being her champion and I don’t care because I don’t take sides.”
However, the close vote isn’t the only thing that is controversial about the decision. The firing came on the heels of her expressing concern over an outside auditor’s discovery that city staff maintained two sets of books with conflicting information. She also cited what she called “consistent” racial tension, both internal and external.
Mark Cooks, who served on the city council for three two-year terms from 2012-14 and 2018-2022, was on the council when Ferrell Benavides was hired. He said he is appalled at how she was terminated.
“When the agenda item was posted for her performance review, based upon the wording, I knew that it was not a traditional performance review, but more so a termination,” Cooks said.
Cooks said he believes the termination was based upon personal vendetta and not a loss of trust or performance. He also believes the 45-minute closed session was not only to seek legal advice but to have a discussion, which he noted was supposed to happen in public, regarding the performance review but instead, it was the reason for termination that would be explained to the citizens.
“Harvey only made one statement and a motion to terminate. He was the main council member stating that he wasn’t pleased with her performance or lost confidence – opportunity here to spell it out,” Cooks said.
Not the first time
Cooks also said this is not the first time he’s seen financials called into question.
“I personally experienced at least one questionable practice from the previous financial team regarding an incident where additional funding for a bond project was needed. During our discussion there was not sufficient funding to fund an upgrade to the project, according to the report we received,” he said. “However, by the very next council meeting, surprisingly, it was reported that the EXACT amount had been located in the budget. How is this I ask? No clear explanation, but a resounding ‘Yes the exact amount.’ “Therefore I can understand why a new team would be concerned on how the city financial records are being maintained.”
Harvey said concerns will be addressed at a meeting of the city audit committee Thursday, April 20 at 5:30 p.m., but wouldn’t elaborate any further.
“I will be working with the audit committee and the external audit firm to understand and share with the public the concerns raised regarding the financial management of the city and to find a way forward for improvement,” he said.
Cooks said that, although he does not believe there was any misappropriation of funds, some pre-existing accounting practices needed correction. He said before leaving the council he was in a meeting with the auditor who found it difficult to reconcile the financials because of very similar situations.
Decision could be costly
Bryan Kaeser, the owner of several area businesses, including the Mudhook Bar, said the decision could wind up costing the city up to millions of dollars.
“The (former) city manager has approximately $500,000 left on her contract. I don’t know the details of her contract, but there has to be some severance worked out on early termination of it. The only thing we have to go on is an approximately $250,000 per year salary with nearly two years left on her contract,” Kaeser said. The interim city manager (Robert Brown) will be paid a comparable amount, let’s say $200,000 per year, overlapping with the former city manager’s pay.
Kaeser went on to explain, “The city has just asked for proposals from executive search firms to find a new city manager. This could cost tens of thousands of dollars as well. The new city manager who is eventually hired will demand a high salary to work in a chaotic climate, filled with allegations of fraud and abuse. If this is another $250,000 per year, it will also overlap with the pay from the former city manager for the next two years.”
Kaeser added that the City of Hutto, northeast of Austin, was just forced to pay their former city manager $12.5 million in a wrongful termination lawsuit. He said Duncanville has that risk as well, unless city leaders have a two-year long paper trail of performance and disciplinary conversations signed and delivered with Ferrell-Benavides.
“With the suddenness of this termination, without public hearings of ‘loss of confidence’ or poor performance, my management experience would tell me we do not have that paperwork completed,” he said.
“These five things total a risk of up to $14.5 million to the city and its taxpayers. Is it really prudent to follow down that path, or could we have provided stronger leadership for her along the way? Something doesn’t add up, and it’s not just the tax increase coming to pay for this misjudgment.”
Cooks said he recalled a similar situation in 2012-13 when the city hired Dan O’Leary, a seasoned 33-year city manager who had already retired but came out of retirement to work for Duncanville. Cooks said he later retired again after two years versus quitting.
“I understand that corporations usually do not share personnel records. However, written permission was granted in order to maintain transparency with the citizens. In my personal opinion the vague responses are indication that the termination reasons are not valid,” Cooks said.
“I realize that Texas is an at-will state, but this termination is at another level, especially if it could possibly cost citizens over a million dollars with legal fees, recruiting a new city manager, overlapping payroll expenses and no amount to cover loss of reputation. This is all due to the behavior of a few council members managing business affairs in a manner that is not in alignment with the mission statement of our city,” he continued.
“The citizens are requesting a valid reason for termination, and not just an explanation to a few of their friends or social media, but a public written statement.”
Since 1888, Texas has been an at-will employment state. This means employment in Texas may be terminated by an employer or an employee for a good reason, a bad reason, or simply no reason at all, absent a specific agreement to the contrary.
Offering a solution
Cooks said his solution would be to return Ferrell-Benavides to the post of city manager, citing her strong professional record with the city. He suggested to “Use proper management skills if coaching is necessary, including providing document performance review as would be given to them by their employer.”
Cooks added that the citizens and the Duncanville Police Association have endorsed Ferrell-Benavides, and at least two of her previous employers, mayors and council members, submitted letters to verify their level of confidence in her performance while working in their city – letters he said he was copied on.