By the San Marcos Local News Editorial Board
If government of, for and by the people means anything at all — that is, if the promise of the United States as self rule by free citizens is anything more than a cynical, self-deceiving slogan — then the citizens must insist on absolutely nothing less than open, transparent government.
In San Marcos today, we have turned our public affairs over to a secretive, clandestine government hiding under legal cover. This government can’t possibly have the public’s best interests at heart, because it is intrinsic and indispensable to the public interest that the public at least know what the government is doing. And yet, with another occurrence shrouded in secrecy, we do not know what the city government is doing, because the city government refuses to come clean.
Thursday night, the city council voted, 4-3, to terminate City Manager Rick Menchaca. The city followed the bare letter of the law in publicizing the meeting and its purpose, but did not follow its usual procedures for distributing the agenda or televising the public proceedings. This city’s citizens were left, effectively, in the dark respecting the fate of the city’s top administrative professional, the man who is most responsible for executing the city’s business. It is simply unconscionable that the public should be excluded from a decision of this importance.
We know very little about the Menchaca firing. Only the mayor, the councilmembers and their confidants know what’s behind it. We know that Menchaca said the city council spent eight to ten hours in executive session on his evaluation. We know that a 4-3 vote tells us it wasn’t an open-and-shut case. We know that at the end of up to ten hours of deliberations about Menchaca, all of it in executive session and under as little public scrutiny as possible, pushed by Mayor Susan Narvaiz, according to Menchaca’s account, the mayor finally drummed up a bare majority vote to fire the city manager.
We know of no instances of lawlessness or malfeasance on Menchaca’s part. We have heard of no compelling motive for Menchaca’s removal. There has been no outcry, nor even a whisper from the public to remove Menchaca. We have heard complaints that city staffers didn’t especially enjoy working for Menchaca, which is hardly a strange tale in the workplace. But if that should be the reason, then City Hall ought to produce such an account, if for no other reason than to quiet the sort of uncharitable speculation that this city council has earned through the last several years.
Instead, the city, on the advise of its attorney, is refusing to discuss the matter further, hiding behind the action’s status as a “personnel matter,” which is exempt from public disclosure. We understand why personnel matters require discretion. But this is much more than a personnel matter. This matter cuts straight into the heart of how this city is governed, how policy is shaped and how power is wielded within City Hall. The city council owes us a thorough explanation.
And if it takes a lawsuit by Menchaca to open up this government and show us what’s inside, who is greasing who, who is twisting arms and how, then we welcome the sunlight, because this type of government under shadow is not worth having and we absolutely must not tolerate it because it is rife with peril for the public interest. Secrecy in government is a wide opening for unscrupulous actors to exploit public resources and prerogatives for personal gain.
But we’re not holding our breath waiting for sunlight. We are holding our breath waiting to learn how the sunlight will be blocked. The dance to come between Menchaca and the city will speak volumes. If the city winds up buying Menchaca’s silence — and he received about $500,000 from Midland when that city fired him in 2007 — it’s an indication that Menchaca and the city both believe his case is pretty strong.
In that light, this remark City Attorney Michael Cosentino is especially interesting: ““There are legal consequences for discussing personnel matters publicly, and they are not good consequences.” It’s not against the law for councilmembers to talk, but the legal consequences for doing so aren’t good? Draw your own conclusions.
We should mention that the citizens of San Marcos have left themselves open to this scenario. The citizens have been willing to live with a charter that allows the council to fire the city manager by a bare majority. Then, the citizens have three times, once without challenge, seated the same mayor. Complaints that Narvaiz has consolidated too much power in her office long preceded Menchaca’s arrival. Furthermore, too many elections in recent years have presented no opposition to the mayor’s candidates. Combine those factors — a mayor with too much power for a council-manager form of government, her hand-picked councilmembers running without opposition and a charter allowing a simple majority to unseat a city manager — and you’ve got a toothless city manager position with no safeguards against an over-reaching mayor.
It’s absolutely no less of a danger to vest excessive power in an unelected city manager, but a bare majority vote for dismissal leaves that position much too vulnerable to fickle politicians. The next time the city amends the charter, we absolutely recommend that the required majority be increased to five votes, or else the city manager will continue to operate under political pressure to disrupt the continuity of his professional staff. If the city manager truly is a rogue, then five votes is within reach. Under the present arrangement, the long list of professionals sacrificed to politics in recent years includes two city managers, a city attorney, a municipal judge and several staffers in the planning department. Thus, we have lost more talent and good conscience than this city can bear.
We have nothing to say here about Menchaca’s performance, other than to point out that he put capital projects into motion and did a generally responsible job. Now that he’s out of the way, we suspect that we’ll see what kind of difference he made.
A couple remarks coming from Menchaca’s camp point to a belief that Narvaiz is “on her way out of office.” We don’t know if that means Narvaiz isn’t running for re-election in November, or if she has aroused so much bitterness that she can’t win. In either case, a sitting mayor devising an exit strategy with four months in office and no more than an interim city manager in her way shapes up as a developer’s bonanza, if the mayor’s record is any indication.
We expect the Springtown Center mess to come back before the council very quickly. Last time we heard about Springtown, the mayor tried to give $3 million worth of incentives to the developer while the property was in foreclosure. We all know she’s a good fundraiser.
And consider the following scenario. Carma Texas, a subsidiary of a Canadian parent company, is working on a 1,338-acre development with 3,427 homes, mostly just outside the city limits. Discussions are already afoot with the mayor and this foreign-based development company seeking financial incentives and potential use of the city’s borrowing capacity to fund residential development amounting to an incentive totaling into the tens of millions of dollars.
We wouldn’t be surprised to see her at the forefront, along with former city council members and staff, leading the charge and suggesting that we “must fund growth” in almost the same apologetic tone as: Pretty. Near. Perfect. Municipal incentives for residential development are practically unheard of because residential development is such a tax base loser, particularly for school districts. Under the current situation, she won’t have an independent city manager to stop her. What’s that worth to Carma, and what’s it worth to a mayor who could be on her way out of office?
If these issues are to be discussed and considered, they must not be discussed in executive session. They must be given the full light of day and under the scrutiny of all of us, those of us who pay the bills and fund our city. We must not find out about such deliberations by reading our tax bills in years to come. We want those responsible to be responsible.
Is the fox in the hen house? You make the call.
Wild questions, to be sure. But when the city keeps its dealings secret, those become questions that we are tempted, and obligated, to ask.
We understand there will be the typical partisan outcry to our projections and prognostications. We only ask that you take the time to listen to the discussion and focus on the impact of the real outcome to our community and to your families.