By Steve Hansen
QCS Managing Editor
The Tucumcari City Commission’s decision to fire City Manger Doug Powers is being questioned by two commissioners and its own attorney.
City Attorney Randy Knudson said the surprise 3-2 vote Thursday may expose the city to potential liability. Knudson said there are serious questions regarding whether Commissioners gave proper public notice, a requirement of the state’s Open Meetings Act.
Knudson noted the Powers matter wasn’t listed as an action item on the Commission agenda. Instead, he said, it was listed as an item for discussion.
Two Commissioners, Robert Lumpkin and Mayor Amiel Curnutt, also question the vagueness of how the discussion item was listed on the agenda, giving no indication a majority of the five-member Commission intended to fire Powers.
The matter was placed on the agenda with the following wording:
“ITEMS FROM COMMISSIONERS
“A. Discussion regarding Commission/Manager Communication requested by Mayor Pro Tem Jimmy Sandoval.”
Commissioners Jimmy Sandoval, Ernie Dominguez and Dora Salinas-McTigue voted to dismiss Powers. Lumpkin and Curnutt voted against.
Assistant City Manager Charlie Sandoval also announced he was resigning before the commission meeting adjourned. The Commission has yet to appointment an acting city manager.
Salinas-McTigue defended the decision saying she had received a legal opinion from the New Mexico Municipal League advising the commission’s majority that proceeding with Powers’ dismissal as it occurred was legal.
Regarding the language of the discussion item, Salinas-McTigue said, “That said it all,” even though the item is not explicit about any intent to fire Powers.
Acknowledging the commission “has the absolute right to terminate the employment of Doug Powers, with or without cause,” Knudson said in a letter, “…the city commission should have been given prior notice of the intention to terminate Mr. Powers’ employment, so that valuable citizen input could be had on the matter, and because Mr. Powers had a right to know this action might be taken.”
Knudson also noted, “I am concerned that the city commission has exposed the City of Tucumcari to potential liability, which would otherwise not exist, unless steps are taken to immediately reconvene a meeting of the Tucumcari City Commission to re-vote on the employment of City Manager Doug Powers at a properly noticed public meeting.”
Knudson stopped short of recommending that Powers be reinstated to the city manager post, saying it is a policy matter that the commission should decide.
Salinas-McTigue said Sandoval had asked for an executive session to occur at Thursday’s meeting but was turned down.
Sandoval could not be reached for comment on Monday.
Curnutt and Lumpkin, meanwhile, have joined forces with a “Committee to Reinstate Doug Powers as City Manager.”
In an paid advertisement in today’s Quay County Sun, the committee calls for Powers’ re-hiring.
“If this does not work,” the advertisement continues, “then we the citizens will have to take matters into our own hands and recall these commissioners…”
As reasons to reinstate Powers, the advertisement said Powers “has been able to continually get grant money for local projects. In 2014, the advertisement said, the city is scheduled to receive more than $7.6 million in grants for meters, storage and wells for the city’s water system; two street projects; the Tucumcari Airport; and senior citizen programs.
The advertisement lists other accomplishments by Powers, including:
· Lighting at three Interstate 40 exits to the city and on the east and west sides of Route 66 Boulevard.
· New air conditioning at the Tucumcari Convention Center.
· Two sections of streets repaired.
· Balanced budgets for the last few years without laying off employees.
· In 2013 was able to give raises to all city employees.”
· Cleaned up city parks and helped get new activities started, improved relations with local businesses and city employees.
The advertisement also stated “Things like this look bad for the city and could influence our receiving the Racino and other new business.”
Further, the advertisement said, “Actions like this can define the city as being out of control.”
Salinas-McTigue had no
comment on the content of the advertisement.
The motion to dismiss Powers was made by Sandoval, who said Powers had been “unresponsive to requests” for action from commissioners and moved to dismiss Powers based on non-performance.
Dominguez said communications between commissioners and Powers had been “real sporadic.” He said Powers had been ignoring the municipal cemetery and other things that are “real important to this town.”
Lumpkin said the motion was out of order, since it was not presented as an agenda item for action, but was listed on the agenda in the “Items from Commissioners” section, in which voting does not regularly occur.
Lumpkin added, “I’ve seen things improve” under Powers. He said gross receipts taxes are up, and that he has seen Powers take action on “each and every complaint” that comes to the city.
“This is premature and disingenuous,” he said of the move to fire Powers. “We need to check the legality of this. This is totally under duress.”
Curnutt said, “I think we’re making a terrible mistake” by terminating Powers. “He’s the most cooperative manager we’ve had.,”
When asked for specifics after the meeting about why they voted to fire Powers, Dominguez had no comment, and Sandoval only said, “Non-performance.”
Salinas-McTigue said Powers had failed to hire more personnel at the Tucumcari wastewater treatment plant, and had allowed Tucumcari’s trash dump to take garbage from other communities so that new cells must be added to the Tucumcari landfill.
On Monday, Dominguez said he voted to fire Powers, even though he considers him to be a friend.
“Friendship is friendship,” he said, “but business is business.”
Despite recognizing Powers has done “a lot of good things for the city,” Dominguez said, there were a lot of “little things” that had not received attention. The little things, he said, blew up to become big things.
Echoing Salinas-McTigue, Dominguez said wastewater treatment plant shortcomings and the use of the landfill by other communities were issues that had not been adequately addressed.
Dominguez also said Powers had not been communicating well with all the commissioners.
“All I want to see is more action, not just for certain people, but for the city as a whole,” he said. “I wasn’t getting that.”
Lumpkin, who has been a commissioner for eight years, said the city has been advertising for months to find qualified operators for the wastewater treatment plant. Further, he said, revenues have not been sufficient to purchase new machinery. The plant, he said, must operate based on fees charged to customers.
Lumpkin also said the city’s new landfill, which began operating in 2012, “was built as a regional facility.” He said that taking on wastes from other cities has enhanced city revenues. The city has received enough in revenues from handling trash from other communities to pay for new cells, or additional sections, to the landfill.
The commission approved contracts totaling nearly $500,000 to build a new cell on Thursday. Since the current cell is at capacity, the city has had to haul even its own trash to a landfill in Clovis for the past several weeks, commissioners said. The commission approved the contracts with a single “no” vote from Salinas-McTigue, who said the contract should have required local hiring and subcontracting.
Curnutt acknowledged that some “sloppy” work had been done in the past at the cemetery, but said the city had worked out an arrangement with the city’s Cemetery Advisory Board to handle a long list of repairs by which a few would be handled each month. That arrangement seems to be working well, he said, and increases accountability of employees working there.
Powers became city manager in April 12, 2012, after serving as acting city manager since Sept. 29, 2011. Powers became acting city manager after the commission fired Bobbye Rose from the city manager post.
Powers had been working for the city for 20 years. Before being named as city manager, Powers was manager of the city’s planning and development department.