City Attorney Caught in Power Struggle

firth-borundaAs you probably already know, the recent questions about Sylvia Firth-Borunda’s employee evaluation is nothing more than a power struggle between Oscar Leeser and some members of city council. However, it is important to note that this is speculation at this point. We are forced to speculate because the city is notorious for keeping relevant and important community discussion behind closed doors. The only thing we know at this point is that Sylvia Firth Borunda should have been evaluated earlier this year and that the evaluation, although delayed, is ongoing. We also know that some members of city council want to change how the evaluation of the city attorney is conducted.

That is all we know because almost all of the discussion on this matter has been held behind closed doors – in executive session. I believe this is abuse of the executive session exception but I’m probably alone on this. Although the law allows for personnel discussion to be held in executive session the political ramifications about the possible removal of the city attorney is an important public discussion matter that needs to be vetted by the community.

Sylvia Firth-Borunda was appointed by John Cook on December 20, 2011 to an initial five-year contract. It was originally written as a three-year contract; however, two city council representatives lobbied and pushed forth the increase to five years. When her contract was later extended another five-years, a clause was inserted that states that if Firth-Borunda were terminated within three years of the extension, the city would be required to pay her the full five-year salary. Prior to her appointment, she was Cook’s Chief of Staff. At the time of her appointment, Sylvia Firth-Borunda was fighting the recall attempts of John Cook, Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega. The recalls were in response to the domestic partnerships debacle at city hall. It was Byrd and Ortega that pushed forth the additional two-years on her initial contract.

Besides the domestic partners issue, Firth-Borunda has been involved in two other significant city policy controversies.

The first is the hiring of city manager Tommy Gonzalez. In “Comedy of Errors: City Manager Appointment” I shared with you how the city may have violated the open meetings laws by meeting in executive session and apparently making a decision to extend a contract to Gonzalez as the new city manager. Ultimately, the argument from the city was that a formal vote had not been taken but rather a “consensus” had been reached. Regardless of the technicalities, the city attorney’s office facilitated the perception that a vote had taken place in executive session to offer a contract to Tommy Gonzalez.

The other issue that the city attorney has been intimately involved in was the Stephanie Townsend Allala open records case. There were various open records requests filed by other individuals as well looking for information about the ballpark. Initially, Sylvia Borunda-Firth, acting on behalf of a city council led by Susie Byrd, Cortney Niland and Steve Ortega, refused to release the public records requested by Stephanie Townsend Alla. Firth-Borunda contracted an out of town law firm and fought the Texas Attorney General in court to avoid releasing the public records.

After Oscar Leeser was sworn into office and at the direction of the new city council, Sylvia Firth-Borunda released the open records that had been requested and continued to fight the disclosure of documents stored in private email boxes. The issue of public documents stored in personal email accounts is still pending as an appeal has been filed by the plaintiff in the case.

Through October 10, 2014, the law firm of Denton, Navarro, Rocha & Bernal has been paid $135,002.24 litigating Townsend Alla’s open records request. Many opposed to the ballpark saw the actions of the city attorney as an attempt to keep public records away from the community.

The most recent debacle concerning the city attorney was the release of information to the public about a major developer that resulted in a public reprimand of Cortney Niland by Oscar Leeser. In the October 7, 2014 city council meeting during a discussion about local developer River Oaks Properties, the city attorney explained that the land developer was an obstacle for the pending land annexation on the east side of town.

As the exchange got heated, Oscar Leeser exposed that Cortney Niland was having “sidebars” and behind the scenes discussions with the developers. It is no secret that this public reprimand of Niland was the result of the city attorney releasing information publicly.

After that meeting, the issue of Sylvia Firth-Borunda’s employee evaluation has become an issue that has resulted in some public exchanges at city council and executive session meetings. Ann Morgan Lilly first attempted to introduce a disjointed requested to have the city attorney’s office evaluated by department heads through some form of survey system and at the same time, other city representatives have posted agenda items asking for clarifications on how information is exchanged at city council.

In regards to Ann Morgan Lilly, she stated twice that she is “not after anyone” forcing us to question why she felt it necessary to make that statement. Morgan Lilly has been a close ally to Cortney Niland before.

City council will again be dealing with the city attorney evaluation today, mostly in executive session and hopefully, some in public. Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that we will know what is driving the issue and what “deals” may be made behind closed doors.