City Manager Miller suspended by Council

Commerce – A lengthy and heated special session Thursday in Commerce which including a public hearing concluded with a 3-2 vote by council to suspend City Manager Dion Miller.

Mayor Quay Throgmorton also called for an investigation into Council Members Billie Biggerstaff, Tony Henry and Richard Hill for violation of the city charter, city administrative policies, the open meetings act and Miller's employment agreement.

Additionally, the Mayor called for an investigation regarding possible administrative violations by the city secretary, police chief, assistant police chief, director of administrative services and the city attorney.

Biggerstaff, Henry and Hill voted in favor of a measure to suspend Miller with pay following Biggerstaff's motion and Henry's second. Mayor Throgmorton and Councilman Bob Monday were opposed.

Council was scheduled to conduct a public hearing to discuss and possibly take action regarding the continued employment, evaluation, reassignment duties, discipline or dismissal of City Manager Dion Miller. It was requested the item be placed on the agenda by Billie Biggerstaff who, in a letter to Miller on Feb. 22 cited concern for Miller's leadership abilities, "people" skills, and methods of management.

During Thursday's meeting, Biggerstaff initially requested council adjourn to executive session to discuss the issue. Miller, however, indicated he wanted to leave the session open. Biggerstaff stated she would rather not discuss the issue publically saying she was "extremely concerned with the direction of the city." Following a request by Mayor Throgmorton to provide more specifics, Biggerstaff would proceed to mention a number of items of concern she would later say were "becoming a trend."

Her list of concerns included allegations Miller allowed the city's contract with the county health department to expire last year, a delay in building a new pavilion at City Park following its destruction during a storm last May, plus failure to quickly submit application materials for a housing rehabilitation grant.

Perhaps the biggest concerns expressed by Biggerstaff were what she observed as low morale among city employees and department heads and actions surrounding a recent break-in at the city's water treatment plant.

She said that in the last three months, four department heads had called her asking for a reference for other jobs. Biggerstaff would mention she addressed the issue with Miller, indicating his response was "if that's the way they feel let them find something else."

Miller would later vehemently deny the claim, indicating he said no such thing.

Biggerstaff would go on to say that a lot of things could have been prevented if Miller would have communicated better with the staff. She also referenced a "scathing email" that had allegedly been sent out and circulated among staff. It was frustrating, according to Biggerstaff, to know that city employees were unsatisfied with their jobs, which she felt has created a negative atmosphere and pitting employees against one another.

Councilman Tony Henry had few words to say Thursday, but did at one time comment "I'm not happy." He followed by saying that morale being down was a direct reflection of city management. When asked to provide examples by Mayor Throgmorton, Henry declined comment, which Throgmorton followed by saying "that's because you don't have any."

Biggerstaff's comments on the city's waste water treatment plant were regarding actions earlier this year in which raw sewage was dumped into a nearby tributary. KETR had previously reported of an instance of dumping following a reported break-in at the plant. However, Biggerstaff's comments also reflected actions that there had been previous acts of sewage dumping and that Miller may have had knowledge of the offense(s) and done nothing.

Councilman Hill would later call the acts criminal in nature, both ones of a break-in and knowledge of other offenses. Hill also noted a lack of security measures at the plant and upcoming fines from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

As a result of the break-in and subsequent sewage dumping, the City of Commerce was required to report to incident to the TCEQ.

Councilman Bob Monday defended Miller, saying that he believes a city manager "collects data" before rushing to a decision. According to Monday, Miller had reportedly released two employees following the incidents at the waste water treatment plant. Monday said the sewage incident should not be as much a reflection on Miller as it should be a reflection on the employees who allegedly had a hand in the offense.

"I believe you have to have good people in the right places and we didn't have that," said Monday.

Biggerstaff also questioned why Miller had a "press conference," apparently going against the advice of the city, regarding the sewage spill. She would later clarify and ask why the story appeared in the media which, according to Mayor Throgmorton, was of public record as the break-in was part of a police report.

Miller's rebuttal began by indicating that upon receiving the Feb. 22 letter from Mrs. Biggerstaff regarding concern for his leadership abilities, "people" skills, and methods of management; he replied with his own letter on Feb. 23 asking for more information. Additional information, however, was never provided.

Miller said that all arguments brought before him Thursday were the first time he had heard them.

"I'm hearing [these arguments] at the same time as the audience is," said Miller.

Miller's opening argument also stated he reserved the right to append to his remarks in the published minutes of the meeting.

Miller felt Biggerstaff's allegations were very subjective, broad and vague.

Part of his defense referenced a Sept. 15 meeting where concerns over his performance were brought before council at the request of Tony Henry. Miller complimented Henry for providing him with additional information on the concerns ahead of time so he knew more of the issues.

During the September meeting, Miller was able to provide proper documentation for the allegations brought before him and has since followed through on the requests, which included executing checks issued by the city, pursuing a water contract with Texas A&M University-Commerce and seeking council consent for contracts with outside contractors.

In the end, no action was taken following the September meeting.

Regarding the sewer plant issue, Miller refused to go into further detail as there is an ongoing investigation into the recent incidents.

In responding to Biggerstaff's claim that department heads were sending out resumes, Miller said in his conversation with them only one individual confirmed such an act, but did not specify why. When asked by Biggerstaff if Miller actually thought they would tell him the truth, he responded "yes ma'am, I do." He added that it is not unusual for city employees to send out resumes nor is it unusual to have employees that don't always agree.

Miller referenced a disappointment in not being able to provide a two percent pay raise for city employees this past year as well. When asked by Councilman Henry if such a raise could be implemented, Miller worked with Director of Administrative Services Marc Clayton to incorporate it into the budget. However, no action was taken by council on that particular proposal.

In refuting the allegation of a failure to quickly submit housing rehabilitation grant application materials; Miller stated that the state agency responsible for the program had reportedly lost the paperwork not only for the City of Commerce but for other Texas cities as well.

For the new park pavilion, Miller said the project is scheduled to be complete on March 10.

Miller also brought up previous allegations not mentioned Thursday which including a past comment that he and the mayor spent too much time together and that Mayor Throgmorton may be getting special treatment.

The issue led to a long discussion on council's alleged involvement with the day-to-day activities of the city and continuous contacting of department heads. City Manager Miller said it seemed council members attempt to contact him through department heads rather than him directly, or simply communicate with department heads more on issues rather than with the city manager.

"Maybe council should concentrate more on policy making," said Miller.

Miller stated he didn't understand the culture that had been created in the city with regards to chain of command.

City Attorney Jim McLeroy also pointed out that in his experience with several city councils over the years he had never observed a council more involved than the one in Commerce.

Two Commerce citizens spoke during the public hearing portion of the agenda, Michael Odom and Dick Walker; both speaking in favor of Mr. Miller.

Mr. Odom said he found Miller to be a man of great patience and extensive experience.

Mr. Walker cited a number of reasons in Miller's defense, notably that suspension with pay would be a "serious financial mistake" and would not make sense for a city that, in his more than two decades of living in, is the poorest he's ever seen it.

Walker feels at issue is three council members not working with two others, and those same three individuals coming into each meeting with a preconceived vote.

Walker also told council members that as long as they continue to go through department heads instead of their boss (Miller), there will continue to be problems. He urged council to effectively practice the council-manager form of government, indicating the city will not progress if council continues to fight the system.

Walker called Miller a man of integrity.

Upon Mayor Throgmorton's announcement of an investigation into the three council members (Biggerstaff, Henry and Hill), loud applause came from some of the citizens in attendance. Throgmorton quickly stated that this was not a clapping matter. Bob Monday would also refer to the evening's actions as "a sad day" for the city.

It takes a three-fifths majority vote to suspend Miller, according to Miller's contract. The contract did not list a suspension length. The city's charter indicates a four-fifths majority is required to dismiss a city manager.

In January, council voted 3-1 to approve a recommendation by the Charter Review Committee which would, if approved by voters in May, gives council the option of removing its city manager by a three-fifths rather than the current fourth-fifths majority vote. Mayor Quay Throgmorton voted against the measure, indicating the change could more easily lead to "removal based on personality conflicts rather than job performance." Bob Monday was not present.

Miller was hired as city manager in July 2008.

According to Throgmorton, the next meeting's agenda for March 16 will include an executive session item that will outline specifics of the investigation. The city is to hire an outside firm or individual to conduct the investigation. Throgmorton was unsure of if it was the duty of council to approve/vote on that firm.