Tag Archives: Amarillo City Hall

RIP, John Ward

To say that John Q. Ward was a “survivor” in a cutthroat, ruthless and unforgiving business is to commit the mother of understatements.

Ward served as Amarillo city manager for — hold on! — more than 20 years. He served under several city commissions and city councils — the city changed the name of its governing board years ago.

The former city manager died the other day of a lung infection, according to his wife, Donna.

I had the pleasure of getting to know John Ward during my years working at the Amarillo Globe-News. He was the source — along with the city secretary who later became his wife — of all information I needed as a journalist working for the newspaper of record.

I knew about Ward’s inherent suspicion of media. He didn’t always like talking to people such as me. I don’t really know why, except that those of us who pursue our craft often find things wrong with city government and report it to the public that needs to know. As the man who ran the City Hall show, it falls always on the city manager to be held accountable for all that goes on.

Still, we had a cordial and totally professional relationship. I attribute that to John Ward’s understanding of his role as the city’s top administrator and my role as someone who occasionally had to probe deeply into the goings-on that made the city work.

Amarillo worked well under Ward’s administrative leadership. The city grew steadily if not spectacularly. He stepped into the city manager’s post succeeding a fellow who became something of a municipal legend, former manager John Stiff.

Ward, therefore, learned from one of the best.

City managers as a rule don’t last nearly as long as Ward did in Amarillo. That is a credit to his skill and his knowledge of the community he served.

John Ward was a good one … for certain.

Interim manager now just an ‘assistant manager’

Amarillo, Texas, once had an interim city manager get too far ahead of himself and has paid the price for his, um, boldness.

Andrew Freeman, as I understand it, made some high-level administrative moves without first consulting with the people who hired him: the city council.

The result? Well, he’s been booted back to his former job title of “assistant city manager.” Were I a betting man, I would suggest that Freeman will not be around when the city decides to hire a city manager who will take the job for keeps.

Freeman’s hubris showed itself when he created a new public safety director and elevated Police Chief Martin Birkenfeld into that post, then appointed an interim chief of police to take Birkenfeld’s former job. One problem with that and other appointments: He didn’t seek the “advice and counsel” of the city council.

Freeman sort of sought to suggest that he did notify the council of his intent, but absent any consent, he seemed to believe that notifying council members of his desire qualified as seeking their “advice.”

That is not how most of the council members saw it. Or so I am led to believe.

A few of my social media acquaintances accuse the council of “micromanaging” city government. I don’t see it that way. I consider the decision to return Freeman to his old post as an assistant city manager as a demonstration that they believe in the letter of the city charter’s rules and regulation.

“Advice and consent,” as I understand the term, means that the governing body must grant its approval before a senior administrator makes his or her move. Andrew Freeman, it sure looks like to me, got too far ahead of himself to suit the folks who sit on the city’s governing board.

There’s a clear downside to all of this nonsense. Will any of this make finding a permanent city manager more difficult? Yep! It damn sure will.

Interim manager shows, um, chutzpah

Andrew Freeman is the interim city manager in Amarillo, Texas, a city I know pretty well, having lived there for 23 years before moving with my wife to the Metroplex to be closer to our granddaughter.

I have been stewing about this story for a little bit and I am trying to wrap my arms around the notion of an interim head of a municipal staff enacting the huge managerial changes he sought for the city.

The City Council drummed Jared Miller out of the manager’s job a few months ago, apparently dissatisfied with the leadership he was providing. They elevated Freeman to the interim post, pending the council’s decision on who to hire for the permanent job.

I guess Freeman just couldn’t wait to get the nod, so he acted on his own. He shifted a number of folks around in senior management posts — apparently without checking first with the council members for whom he works.

What might be the fallout from this decision. The council met the other day in executive session to discuss the interim guy’s job performance. Then the city issued a statement rescinding all the appointments that Freeman made. The council said the interim manager violated city policy that is spelled out in the charter; it says the manager cannot do anything of that sort without consulting with the council.

It would be one thing, I suppose, for a city manager who’s been appointed to the job on a full-time — or permanent –basis to get ahead of himself. Andrew Freeman is on the job technically on a temporary basis. For an interim manager to be so bold strikes me as a bit of a brassy move.

It makes me wonder how the council is going to look on that when they get around to deciding whom to select as the next permanent — and I use the term guardedly — chief municipal administrator.

Stay tuned … eh?

Rein this guy in … now!

A story reported in a city I once called home had me laughing out loud this morning as I checked my email … which I do every morning.

Amarillo has an interim city manager, Andrew Freeman, who apparently got way too far ahead of himself — and ahead of his bosses on the City Council — when he announced several key management appointments and promotions. Freeman, who succeeded former City Manager Jared Miller, who was canned late this past year by the council, had announced several key management promotions. Some of them involved people I know fairly well when I lived in Amarillo. Well, Freeman had to rescind the appointments. Why? Because he failed to consult with the council prior to announcing them to the public. Steve Pair, the fellow I quoted recently as publisher of a weekly newsletter he posts from Amarillo, said he asked Mayor Cole Stanley why the city rescinded the appointments. “City Charter requires that the council be advised of all needs of the city and then give consent before staff can take action,” Stanley said. The manager, Stanley said, is able to “appoint all appointive officers or employees of the city with the advice and consent of the council … and remove all officers and employees appointed by the manager.” So, there you have it. The interim city manager, it appears to me, got a little too full of himself and acted without consulting with the folks who appointed him to the job. The council met in closed session to discuss the city manager’s job performance. Hmm. Do you think they might’ve frowned a bit on the manager’s actions regarding these appointments? I am not a betting man, but my trick knee suggests that Andrew Freeman might have erred enough to deny an appointment to the permanent city manager’s post … presuming he wants it. Oh, and where was the city’s legal counsel when all of this was occurring? Someone needs to call that individual on the carpet, too.

Why the big payout?

A whole array of things fly over my noggin, and the news out of Amarillo about the dismissal of City Manager Jared Miller happens to be one of them.

The Amarillo City Council effectively terminated Miller, citing some sort of lack of cohesion between the council and the city administration. Translation: Miller wasn’t leading the city in the direction mandated by the council.

So, what does the council do? It pays the former manager a ton of money as a severance.

Let’s back up for just a second. If a chief municipal executive isn’t doing the job in accordance with City Council policy, does that mean he then is being let go for cause? If that is the case, how does the justify paying him a high six-figure severance?

The money reportedly is coming from a source other than the general fund; I understand it to be a sort of rainy day fund.

Miller spoke kindly of the council and wished it and his former City Hall colleagues well as they embark down some new path that was supposed to be led by the former city manager. It wasn’t. So … he was dismissed, let go, effectively fired.

The council surely softened his landing with a payout that, to my way of reasoning, seems to lack any sense.

Texas Senate sticks it to Amarillo

Wow! What does one say about the Texas Senate’s approval of a bill that is in direct response to an action taken by the Amarillo City Council that, according to the bill’s sponsor, flies in the face of the will of the voters.?

Senate Bill 2035 would restrict city governments from enacting “anticipation notes” sooner than five years after voters reject a spending proposal. Sound familiar?

Amarillo City Council members voted to enact anticipation notes in 2022 just two years after voters in the city rejected a $275 million bond issue to renovate the Civic Center and build a new City Hall complex. The council decided it wanted to proceed anyway, so it acted … prompting a lawsuit filed by local businessman Alex Fairly contesting the action.

Senators voted 20-10 to approve the bill. One of those voting in favor is the newly installed senator from District 31, Kevin Sparks, who lives in Midland but represents the Panhandle in the Senate.

“The City of Amarillo should never had gone behind their voters’ back to finance a project that their voters overwhelmingly voted down,” Sen. Paul Bettencourt, the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement. “It’s an appalling example of an Elected City Council and Mayor thwarting the will of the voters!”

A friend of mine calls this “Ginger’s Law,” named after outgoing mayor Ginger Nelson, who spearheaded the anticipation note idea. Nelson isn’t running for re-election this year, so this could remain as her most visible legacy during her term as mayor.

It’s a shame, given all the good she was able to accomplish during her time as the city’s presiding officer.

But you know … I cannot blame the state Senate for taking this action. Now it heads for the House of Representatives, where I am certain the city’s two lawmakers, John Smithee and Four Price, are paying very close attention.


Back to beginning for Amarillo’s council?

Amarillo’s governing council has received a kick in the gut, thanks to a judge ruling that its issuance of $260 million in anticipation notes is “invalid” and “void.”

What is that all about?

Amarillo businessman Alex Fairly had filed a lawsuit seeking to block the issuance of the tax notes. A visiting judge hearing the case in a Potter County district courtroom agreed with him.

From my vantage point, the city has been the chance to do it right.

The city issued the tax notes after voters had rejected a $275 million bond issue the city had called to repair the Civic Center and to relocate City Hall to a new site. The city wasn’t about to be dissuaded, so it issued the notes that sought to circumvent the will of the voters.

I believe the judge’s decision in favor of Fairly’s suit should send a message that City Hall needs to honor.

It seems like a complicated outcome. The City Council says it disagrees with the judge’s ruling and it will consider whether to appeal it.

Judge rules that tax notes for Amarillo Civic Center are ‘invalid,’ ‘void’ | KAMR – MyHighPlains.com

Fairly issued a statement, according to MyHighPlains.com: “I’m thankful that a regular, ordinary, everyday guy can still raise his hand and say, ‘I don’t think this is right,’ and get a fair day in court and a voice,” he said. “I think we all have that voice. It’s too expensive, I know that. But I’m so thankful that the system is there and we were able to use it and that it worked.”

Fairly questioned whether the city decided to impose the tax notes with proper notification. I happen to side with those who believe the city’s decision so soon after a November 2020 bond issue election denial smacked of arrogance that just didn’t set well with a municipal electorate that is angry with government … at all levels!

The city issued a statement: The City received the court’s final judgment this afternoon. We respectfully disagree with the judgment in this case, and we’re reviewing the decision with our legal counsel to determine our next steps.

Well, here’s a thought. The city could craft a new bond issue proposal and take it back to the voters for yet another decision. Maybe it can persuade enough of them to back City Hall’s desire to improve the Civic Center and find a new site for its government office.

If not, well … then the city has some serious soul-searching to do.


It’s in the timing

Amarillo city officials are going on trial very soon in which they will have to defend the legitimacy of a multimillion-dollar effort to deliver a new municipal complex of offices and convention space.

The lawsuit comes from businessman Alex Fairly. The trial will be in a Potter County district court. Fairly believes the city acted illegally in issuing $260 million in “anticipation notes.”

I am not going to assess whether the city’s actions broke the law. I am, though, in a position to comment on the timing of the issuance.

You see, voters already had spoken decisively in November 2020 when they rejected a $275 million general obligation bond issue to — that’s right — revamp the Civic Center and relocate City Hall. The City Council didn’t seem to care about what voters decided.

So, it acted without voters’ approval by issuing those anticipation notes. The debt load carried by the notes is virtually identical to the load that voters rejected.

I hate saying this, because for years I was a staunch supporter of City Council initiatives, but the decision to supersede voters’ rejection smacks too much of municipal arrogance.

It’s the timing of the issuance juxtaposed with the rejection of the bond issue that ought to rankle residents. Fairly has intimated, further, that the issuance of the debt notes was done without adequate public notice, giving residents a chance to comment publicly on what they thought about the project.

To be sure, if I still lived in Amarillo and had a chance to vote on the bond issue in November 2020 I likely would have voted “yes” on the city request. I can argue all day and into the night about the need for the city to upgrade its Civic Center and find a new site for City Hall. Most voters, though, said “no” to the proposal.

For the city to then come back and issue the anticipation notes — which do not require voter approval — well, plays right into the righteous anger that fuels a lot of voters’ interest in government.


Days of tranquility have passed?

Surely you remember when Amarillo’s city commission (that’s what they called it in those days) would enact an ordinance and there would be virtually no public discussion — let alone debate — about its effectiveness.

From my far-away perch these days, that era might have become a relic of Texas Panhandle history.

A group of citizens has filed a petition calling for the repeal of an ordinance that authorizes the city to spend $260 million in what it calls “anticipation notes” to finance construction of a City Hall and renovation of the city’s Civic Center.

The petition appears to have plenty of legs to carry it forward. Petitioners filed it in the 320th District Court in Potter County. Now we just need to know where it goes from here.

My ol’ trick knee tells me there well might be a municipal election on tap to repeal that ordinance and send the council back to Square One in its effort to modernize and upgrade its municipal convention and meeting spaces.

I’ve been trying to figure out what has changed in the city I once called home. Is it the anger that pervades so much of our government, that it has seeped into City Hall? Is there a legitimate call for greater transparency and accountability among our local governments?

You see, voters rejected a similarly sized bond issue in November 2020.  The City Council decided, apparently, that the “no” vote was insufficient to guide its future decisions. So it sought the anticipation note funding mechanism earlier this year.

It didn’t go over well with at least one local businessman, Alex Fairly, who filed a lawsuit seeking to stop the process. He seems to be getting some traction. The petition? It drew 12,000 signatures in a blink of time.

This discussion could prove to be most helpful and perhaps even therapeutic for a city that long has placed implicit trust that its elected governing body will always do and say the right thing.


City faces stern test

Amarillo City Hall is going to court against an individual who is angry enough at the city to file a lawsuit that says what the city did to incur a mountain of debt is illegal.

I won’t contest the legality of it, but from my perspective from the Metroplex it looks as though it might have been seriously ill-advised.

Amarillo businessman Alex Fairly has sued the city over the council’s decision to levy $260 million in debt through what it calls “anticipation notes.” To be candid, I never had heard of that type of municipal funding until I heard about that decision.

The reason I am questioning the wisdom of this move is its timing. The city put a $275 million bond issue up for a vote in November 2020. The voters offered a resounding “no” vote on whether to renovate the civic center and relocate City Hall. So, what did the council do?

It said, in effect, that it didn’t matter what votes said, that it would proceed anyway. Anticipation notes don’t need voter approval.

Boom! Just like that the city started turning the wheels on a project that voters had just rejected.

Can you say “pitiful timing”?

A visiting judge from Lubbock County decided recently to combine two lawsuits into one, which I presume means the matter will be settled with a single judgment.

If Fairly wins and the court determines the city acted illegally by not providing sufficient public notice in advance of its decision, then the city will have a serious legal matter to clear.

If the city wins and then proceeds with the plan to act over its constituents’ objections, then the city faces a larger political obstacle. I hope to keep watching this matter play out.