Open Records Show Reasons for the Termination of Steve Norwood

On October 9, 2015, I submitted an open records request to the county commissioners asking for communications and documents in regards to Steve Norwood’s termination as the county’s first County Administrator. A frequent reader that wishes to remain anonymous had suggested that I submit the request.

On Monday, November 3, 2015, I received about 130 pages of documents, emails and text messages detailing, what I believe are the reasons that led to Steve Norwood’s termination on October 5, 2015. As you likely know, Steve Norwood, was hired in December and started working in January, 2015.

The open records cache I received from the County lays out that Steve Norwood was having problems with his attendance at the County. He was warned, at least one time, about his attendance issues.

I have decided to make the entire cache of documents available for you to review. They can be accessed by going to this link. As always, I ask that if you use them in any publication or broadcast that you properly attribute my blog as the source of the documents.

For those that do not have the time, or the inclination to go through all 130 pages, I have created a timeline of events showcasing select documents.

However, before the timeline, I want to take the opportunity to point out the professionalism shown to me by the County Attorney’s office and specifically, Holly C. Lytle for how she handled the release of the documents to me.

This is the first time, in my experience, that I have felt that a government entity in El Paso, truly wanted to meet the spirit of the Texas Public Information Act. The County did not make me go through hurdles to receive what I was looking for. Although certain documents were redacted and others were sent to the Texas Attorney’s General office for an opinion, I do not feel that it was done to circumvent access to the information that I requested. As a matter of fact, Ms. Lytle provided information to me even though it was out of the scope of what I requested. This was apparently authorized by the county attorney.

I purposely decided to give you the opportunity to draw your own conclusions from the source documents before sharing my opinion about them with you. Look for my commentary in tomorrow’s edition of my blog.

(All are emails unless designated text messages)

April 6, 2015 (Monday): Email exchange with the subject “concern”:

Veronica Escobar to Steve Norwood (5:43pm):

Selected excerpts:
“I hate the timing of this email, and please know that I am definitely sensitive to your situation, but I don’t think there’s any way to avoid this discussion…I have grown very concerned about your attendance at work and the message it sends to your team…This was actually going to be a discussion I wanted to have with you last Thursday, especially after I found out you were out on Wednesday and didn’t notify the commissioners court, but delayed it because of what happened with your son.

The recent emergency aside, you have been taking a lot of time off from work, either because you haven’t felt well or you had vacation plans…And I know from having seen myself that you arrive at work late and leave early…You’ve missed at least three commissioners court meetings that I can recall…We have a professional dress code…I know you are dealing with a lot right now because of what happened with your son.”

April 7, 2015 (Tuesday): Email exchange with subject “concern”:

Steve Norwood to Veronica Escobar (6:18pm): “Yes Judge I understand and will deal with it. I spend a lot of hours working from home and taking care of organizational matters and have never been an 8 to 5 guy to my direct reports. We have a job to do, so lets do it. If we have to work on Saturday so be it, or if you would like to take an afternoon off each week to play golf…then so bit it.

Yes it has been a challenge personally and this past week did not help, especially when the ex tells you its my fault. Regardless that’s personal and work is work. I give you my word I will get this worked out.

Thanks for your patience and understanding. We are building something very special here.”

Veronica Escobar to Steve Norwood (8:48pm): “Thank you for your response. I’m not quite sure we’re on the same page. And for the sake, my sake, and the sake of the organization, it’s best that we be as clear with each other as possible. I’m not trying to tell you how to operate with your direct reports. My concern is your role – our direct report – as it relates to the commissioners court’s expectations.

Frankly, there’s no time for golf right now. This position has not been in place for a few years; it’s been in place for for [sic] a few months. We do not have the luxury of resting on our laurels. We are setting up a brand new form of government and everyone is watching (as they should be). I used a tremendous amount of political capital explaining to the public why we need this position. And we need this position.

You and I clearly need to talk. I will be in Austin tomorrow from 6 am to 7 pm on county business. Maybe we can talk on Thursday.”

Steve Norwood to Veronica Escobar (9:05pm): “That’s fine. And I agree. I do think we are on the same page. Maybe just a little different approach to the task at hand or the general approach. I will take your lead.”

September 23, 2015 (Wednesday): Email exchange with subject “Outlook”:

Steve Norwood to Commissioners Court (8:34am): “Just so you know Michael and I will be out most of next week at ICMA conference…International City County Management Association. Then I will be in Austin on the latter part of the week. I will be there for the October 5th Court meeting.”

Veronica Escobar to Steve Norwood (8:42am): “But you didn’t think to tell me this when we were discussing the need for you to tell is about your absences? Interesting. I will not postpone the item. We will discuss it with or without you present. Your choice.”

Veronica Escobar to Steve Norwood (3:55pm): “I just went by your office to ask how you thought yesterday’s interviews went but you’re not in. Are you out for the rest of the day?”

Steve Norwood to Veronica Escobar (4:45pm): “Yes. I have been on the phone today w Michael Rodriguez who was my top choice after the first round and is the committees first choice as well. He can be a little abrupt. And maybe a little cocky, but it was unanimous. I really like the guy and is what we need right now.”

Veronica Escobar to Steve Norwood (4:50pm): “How did he do in the interview yesterday? Were you out all day today?”
Steve Norwood to Veronica Escobar (5:03pm): “Yes. I was working from home. We talked a long time today and he is really excited about the move, but wants to talk to his son and daughter….but is 99.5% sure he will be here. Just a little apprehensive due to Park Director. But he clicked with the panel, and is a good fit for EP County.”

Veronica Escobar to Steve Norwood (5:06pm): “You didn’t answer the question. How did he do yesterday?”

Steve Norwood to Veronica Escobar (5:16pm): “He did amazing. Both Vince and Leon had him as #1.”

Veronica Escobar to Steve Norwood (5:29pm): “So you were there?”

Steve Norwood to Veronica Escobar (5:30pm): “No I was not, but spent a good amount of time with him on the phone today. He was a consensus number one pick, as he was mine from the first round.”

Veronica Escobar to Steve Norwood (5.34pm): “So you were out both days?”

Steve Norwood to Veronica Escobar (5:36pm): “Yes. But worked from home on all Wednesday.”

Veronica Escobar to Steve Norwood (5:37pm): “I have made it clear to you on a number of occasions that you needed to inform us when you’d be out, yet you still do not do that.”

Steve Norwood to Veronica Escobar (5:45pm): “You are right. I will do that.”

Steve Norwood to Veronica Escobar (5:45pm): “I understand. As I was working from the office…didn’t think it was necessary, but will do for the future”

Veronica Escobar to Steve Norwood (5:46pm): “You said that before.”

Veronica Escobar to Steve Norwood (5:46pm): “Are you serious???? I made it perfectly clear to you.”

Veronica Escobar to Steve Norwood (7:46pm): “I will be placing an item on the agenda for Monday. I have been a big supporter, and as you know, I have tried my best to offer you support and constructive criticism. But it’s clear you aren’t taking direction. Please be prepared to discuss Monday.”

September 24, 2015 (Thursday): Email exchange with subject “Outlook”:

Steve Norwood to Veronica Escobar (7:14am): “I worked from home all yesterday. I am doing the job that needs to be done but obviously not to your standards, and for that I do apologize. But when it comes to results… I have achieved.”

Veronica Escobar to Steve Norwood (7:33am): “You are completely missing the point. You and I have discussed this more than once. It could not have been more clear. And I brought it up again in executive session because you still refused to follow directive. The point is not that you are working from home. The point is that you have been instructed to notify your bosses when you’re out. It’s pretty easy.

You have a history of frequently missing work, and not notifying us is a way to ensure we are not aware. You wouldn’t tolerate that from one of your employees, nor should you. I don’t either. You’re trying to deflect and that, too, is not acceptable.”

Steve Norwood to Veronica Escobar (8:26am): “Understand. But I truly was working from home.”

September 28, 2015 (Monday): Email exchange with subject “performance”:

Veronica Escobar to Steve Norwood with copies to Carlos Leon and Joanne Bernal (3:14pm): “We are concluding executive session where we’ve discussed your performance. Two members of the commissioners court want to meet with you immediately (tomorrow), so please come back on the first available flight and let us know what time to expect you.”

Steve Norwood to Veronica Escobar (4:16pm): “Ok. Let me take a look at flights.”

Text messages between Betsy Keller and Steven Norwood:
From Steve Norwood (7:27pm): “Don’t think I can do Judges request”
From Betsy Keller: “What request?”
From Steve Norwood: “May need other request”
From Betsy Norwood: “? Did she email it?”

Veronica Escobar to Steve Norwood (7:38pm): “I just checked Southwest Airlines, and they have availability. Please advise.”

Veronica Escobar to Steve Norwood with copies to Carlos Leon and Joanne Bernal (8:36pm): “What’s the status?”

Steve Norwood to Veronica Escobar (10:57pm): “I can not get there . [sic] Will Look for Wednesday”

Text message from Steve Norwood (11:41pm): “No tell judge All bullshit is off. My son was hit by a train just hours ago”

September 29, 2015 (Tuesday): Email exchange with subject “performance”:

Veronica Escobar to Steve Norwood with copies to Joanne Bernal and Carlos Leon (5:54am): “Why not? When I emailed you last night, there were flights available for the early morning and all pretty much.”

Veronica Escobar to Steve Norwood (6:56am): “Betsy just phoned me and told me about your son. We are very sorry to hear about that. Hope he’s okay and recovers soon. Please let us know when you will be back once you know and we’ll schedule our meeting then.”

Veronica Escobar to Carlos Leon and Joanne Bernal with subject line “Norwood” (7:19am): “Steve texted Betsy that he cannot be here because his son was ‘hit by a train.’ He didn’t say anything else. Below are the stories from Round Rock about the accident. His son was taken to the hospital with what one station called ‘injuries that are not expected to be serious.’ [two Internet links to news media outlets] I’ll keep you posted, but we won’t be meeting anytime today.”

Text messages between Betsy Keller and Steve Norwood:

From Steve Norwood (7:34am): “Just went back and read texts. The Judge found a way for me to fly back. Unreal.”
From Betsy Keller: “I will talk to her. Just worry about [redacted by Martin].”

Betsy C. Keller to Veronica Escobar (7:59am): “Thank you Judge.” She was responding to Escobar’s 6:56am email to Steve Norwood about his son.

Steve Norwood responds to Veronica Escobar (8:03am): “Thanks for the compassion, Just [sic] don’t understand right now. [redacted] But thank you. Regardless what happens I appreciate your caring and compassion.”

October 1, 2015 (Thursday):
Email from Veronica Escobar to Steve Norwood with copies to Carlos Leon & Joanne Bernal with subject “meeting”:

From Veronica Escobar (9:41am): “I understand you are back in town. What time can we meet?”

Email exchanged between Steve Norwood, Joanne Bernal, Veronica Escobar and Carlos Leon with subject “My son”:

Veronica Escobar to Joanne Bernal with a copy to Carlos Leon (9:57am): “Can you two meet this morning? I have to leave at 11:00 and will be back at 1”00, but if you can meet now, I’m available.” Joanne Bernal responded that she was on her way up.

Steve Norwood to Veronica Escobar and Carlos Leon (9:57 am): “I am on my way too [sic] see my son. He is in a bad place and I will do what I need to do. I appreciate your support. I will be there Monday am.”

Email exchanged between Betsy C. Keller and Christopher Stathis with subject “access”:

Betsy Keller to Christopher Stathis (2:29pm): “As soon as possible, I need to you to deactivate all external access for Steve Norwood. However, I would ask that you not inactivate him as a user or remove him from our email system. Please keep this confidential until the information is made public next week (most likely).”

Christopher Stathis responded in the affirmative at 2:47pm.

Joanne Bernal to Steve Norwood with subject “Employment” (5:23pm):

“Let me begin by expressing my hope that your son will be well soon.

Prior to your son’s accident, the Commissioners Court met in executive session to discuss your performance. They reached a unanimous consensus that they are prepared to terminate you immediately. As you know, Judge Escobar and Commissioner Leon have been trying to meet with you and you have failed to comply with their instructions regarding meeting or calling to discuss these matters.

The Court is willing to allow you to resign in lieu of termination. I have attached a Release which outlines the terms under which the Commissioners Court will agree to a voluntary separation. The matter will be posted on Monday for both an executive and open session item. The law requires that Court to take public action to terminate a department head. If it is your decision to resign voluntarily, there will not be a public discussion.

It is imperative that you respond to this email. If you wish to discuss the performance mattes I can discuss them with you by phone. If the Court does not hear back from you by 8:30 a.m. on October 5th, 2015, the Court will conclude that you do not wish to resign and it is my expectation that the Court will proceed with termination.

The Court sincerely hopes that this separation will be amicable. I know the Court wishes you well and hopes you will be successful in your next position.”

October 1, 2015 (Thursday): Selected excerpts of the September 30, 2015 Separation Agreement proposed to Steve Norwood:

“Steven P. Norwood shall submit his letter of resignation from El Paso County on September 30, 2015, effective date of October 8, 2015…Steven P. Norwood shall be placed on paid administrative leave for the five business days between his submission of his letter of resignation and the effective date of his separation… El Paso County will not seek from Stephen P. Norwood the pro-data share of any relocation expenses reimbursed or paid on his behalf.”

Click here to read the entire September 30, 2015 proposed separation agreement.

October 2, 2015 (Friday with a copy on Saturday): Joanne Bernal to Steve Norwood with subject “Separation”:

Text messages between Veronica Escobar and Steve Norwood on October 2, 2015:
At 7:50am, “Missed my flight. Caught a later flight. Can talk anytime.”
At 7:51am, “Joanne sent you an email to your yahoo. Have you read it yet?”
At 7:52am, “No”
Reply, “Please read it first. Then we can talk.”

Text message from Steve Norwood to Joanne Bernal (10:54am): “Thanks for being so understanding. Just want to separate quietly. It wasn’t a fit. My family suffered from this move, and it’s unfortunate. I am not mean person. But sometimes it’s not the fit. But thank you for your professional and candor.”

(7:05pm) excerpted: “I met with the County Judge and Commissioner Leon. There is not a willingness to pay the 6 months salary. While the Judge and Commissioner Leon do not speak for the entire Court, I do feel strongly that the entire Court will be in agreement. My belief is based upon a combination of work performance issues, your failure to follow direct instructions this week, your failure to communicate with the Court and the evidence and witnesses which surfaced this week.

The County Judge and Commissioners Leon are willing to consider the idea of a 30 day concept. I think it could work one of two ways: 1. You submit your resignation Monday, by noon, execute the release and would stay on the payroll – on paid administrative leave until – October 30th, 2015; or 2. You submit your resignation Monday, by noon, the Court will execute a separation agreement and terminate you effective Monday and pay you an amount equal to one month’s salary upon execution of the release and settlement agreement. This will require a public vote on the settlement agreement.”

October 3, 2015 (Saturday): Email exchange with subject “Separation”:

Steve Norwood to Joanne Bernal (11:29am): “First of all I appreciate your compassion during this time. But I really need 4 moths [sic] and will execute agreement. I do need personal help. [redacted] Please mos. [sic] on payroll and health ins, and I will be a real pro and do all that I need to do to make this graceful and amicable.”

Joanne Bernal to Steve Norwood (2:25pm) excerpt: “I am very sympathetic to your situation and I believe the Court will also.”

Text message from Steve Norwood to Joanne Bernal (4:37pm): “Just hope u can do something. I haven’t resigned or been fired but cannot get on email. Let’s do this peacefully and quietly. I know that’s what we all want. I am willing.”

October 5, 2015 (Monday): County agenda: 3. Consent Agenda, G. Discuss a personnel matter regarding the County Administrator, pursuant to Texas Government Code Section 551.074

Motion: Approve and authorize the County Judge to send written notice to Steve Norwood terminating his employment contract pursuant to section 6D of that contract. The motion was made Veronica Escobar and seconded by Andrew Haggerty. It passed unanimously.

Section 6D of Steve Norwood’s employment contract contains the following language:

“D. Involuntary Termination for Just Cause. In the event the Chief Administrator is terminated for ‘just cause,’ the County shall make no severance payments to the Chief Administrator at all. He shall only be compensated for any accrued unpaid salary and compensable benefits earned as per county policies and procedures up to the date of termination. For purposes of this Agreement, ‘just cause’ is defined and limited for purposes of this Agreement to any of the following:

1. Misfeasance, malfeasance and/or nonfeasance in performance of the Chief Administrator’s duties and responsibilities.
2. Indictment, conviction or a plea of guilty or no contest to a non-traffic related misdemeanor or felony crime, whether or not adjudicated is withheld.
3. Neglect of duty, including the inability or unwillingness to properly discharge the responsibilities of office.
4. Violation of any substantive County policy, rule, or regulation, which would subject any other County employee to termination.
5. The commission of any fraudulent act against the interest of the County.
6. The commission of any act which involves moral turpitude, or which causes the County disrepute.
7. Violation of the International City/county Management Association Code of Ethics or the El Paso County of Ethics as determined by the El Paso County Ethics Commission.
8. Any other act of a similar nature of the same or greater seriousness.”

A second motion approved the appointment of Betsy Keller to be the interim Chief Administrator.

Selected excerpts of the October 5, 2015 Separation Agreement proposed to Steve Norwood:

“Steven P. Norwood shall submit his letter of resignation from El Paso County on October 5, 2015, effective immediately…a one-time severance payment of $14,977.00…El Paso County will not seek from Stephen P. Norwood the pro-data share of any relocation expenses reimbursed or paid on his behalf.”

Click here to read the entire October 5, 2015 proposed separation agreement.

Steve Norwood to Joanne Bernal (8:29am): “I have received. Thank you.”

Joanne Bernal to Steve Norwood (1:50pm): “I just met with the Court in executive session. The court is firm in its position: -The Court will accept your letter of resignation if it received in writing by 4 today and is effective today and submitted with a release of all claims against the county, In exchange: -You will not be terminated for cause, -The Court will pay you for your vacation that is accrued, -The Court will not seek reimbursement for the pro rata moving expenses it is entitled to under the contract, and -The Court will pay you an amount equal to one months pay – $14,997 minus applicable deductions, The Court further indicated that if no resignation is received by 4:00 p.m today, it will take public action. I anticipate that the action will be to terminate your contract for cause. Please advise me of your intentions.”

Steve Norwood to Joanne Bernal (2:53pm): “ok. Please give me more time than 4pm. That is not fair.”

Joanne Bernal to Steve Norwood’s personal Yahoo account (3:38pm): “Steve, I believe that it is the Court’s feeling that: 1) You received written notice last week, and 2) If you had returned when directed by the Court last week, you would have had ample time. I already told the Court that you requested additional time and they refused to give you additional time. I simply do not have the authority to give you additional time. The 4:00 deadline remains. I have asked Manny to send you an updated release, it is the same that I sent last week except that it has the monetary detail. Are you asking for more time to decide or more time to execute the release? If you have already decided to resign, AND are willing to send your written resignation, then we can execute the release tomorrow. If you have not decided, I don’t have any authority to give you additional time to decide.”

Text message from Steve Norwood to Joanne Bernal (3:39pm): “Before we do anything can we have a week to sort through this. That’s not too much to ask. Only one week.”

Text message from Joanne Bernal to Steve Norwood (4:00pm): “I will ask but I think they will day [sic] no. I think they are about to terminate.”

October 6, 2015 (Tuesday): Email to county commissioners and various county officials with subject “Transition and interim”:

From Betsy C. Keller (11:41am) excerpt: “As you may be aware, there is a transition we are going through with our County Administrator position. Steve Norwood moved to El Paso and accepted this position during a significant transitional time in his personal life.”

October 7, 2015 (Wednesday): Email to county commissioners and various other county officials with subject “emails and texts and other communications”:

From Veronica Escobar (3:37pm): “As you are aware, Mr. Norwood is no longer employed with the County of El Paso. The nature of Mr. Norwood’s departure may give rise to the possibility of litigation against the County. In response to this possible threat, the County Attorney has appointed Ralph Girvin to handles all administrative and legal matters relevant to Mr. Norwood’s departure. These duties include interviewing most if not all County managers, other key personnel, collecting data and other information that is relevant to Mr. Norwood’s departure.

I ask that [you] fully cooperate with Mr. Girvin. He will be contacting you in the near future.”

October 9, 2015 (Friday): text messages between Joanne Bernal and Steve Norwood:

Text message from Steve Norwood to Joanne Bernal (9:29am): “Can um email my termination agreement, Thanks.”

Text message from Joanne Bernal to Steve Norwood (9:39am): “Steve, I am confused. Are you asking for the proposed separation agreement that you rejected or your employment contract?”

Text message from Steve Norwood to Joanne Bernal (9:39am): “The official document that terminated my employment.”

Text message from Joanne Bernal to Steve Norwood (9:41am): “The official document are the minutes of the court. They will be ready the 19th. Betsy can send you PAF. Do you want that?”

Text message from Steve Norwood to Joanne Bernal (10:57am): “Yes”

October 14, 2015 (Wednesday): Email exchange with subject “Separation Agreement and Releases”:
Joanne Bernal to Ms. Delaney (9:34am): “I have been informed by Betsy Keller that Steve has expressed interest in reaching an amicable agreement with El Paso County regarding the terms of his separation from the County. I have also been asked to forward this information to you. Attached please the find the [sic] release which had originally been sent to Steve. Please communicate to him that I hope he is well. I will place an item on the Commissioners Court’s agenda for next Monday for Their reconsideration. Please let me know if, after a careful review of the document, Steve wishes to proceed with the agreement.”

Click here to view Norwood’s last pay stub, prior to the additional month’s salary approved by the commissioners court on November, 2, 2015.

November 2, 2015 (Monday): County commissioners approved a settlement agreement paying Norwood one additional month’s salary of $14,977.00, if he signs the settlement agreement.

Additional document excerpts:

Downloadable document binder.

1. Keep in mind that email time zones depend on the computer’s time zone setting when being viewed, therefore the times may not represent the actual time of the email. I have made no attempt to adjust the times. The dates and times are generally correct.

2. I am aware that Jo Anne (Bernal) is two words, however to maintain consistency, I am reproducing her name as it is in the open records documents that I received.

3. I should also point out that I conducted a Google search for the truck and train accident that Norwood’s son was involved in, and the news media results show that he was expected to recover from the accident.