Members will also set date for May election
The Sulphur Springs city council will take a special meeting on Friday to appoint one member to the council and set a date for an election for the other three open positions, according to a meeting agenda.
Maxwell said the purpose of appointing one member to the city council was to “get along with four council members until May.” The individual appointed to the council on Friday will only serve until the May election, although at that time they may wish to formally run for their spot, Maxwell said.
In addition to those two agenda items, the council will also make a decision to accept or reject the resignations of members Erica Armstrong, Jeff Sanderson and Jimmy D. Lucas. The remaining council who have not tendered resignations consists of Freddie Taylor (place 5), Doug Moore (place 6) and John Sellers (place 7).
According to city manager Marc Maxwell, the noon meeting will work “much like a committee appointment,” where remaining members will receive names of those who could serve as an interim council person and vote on such a person’s instatement.
“This is something the voters need,” Maxwell said. “We could appoint them all if we wanted to, but we won’t… we don’t want to be over-reaching.”
“We’ll do just what we need to do to keep the government in force and nothing more,” Maxwell said. “Four council members is enough to conduct business.”
Four members of a city council constitutes a quorum, or the required number of members to conduct business, according to the Texas Government Code.
Per the Code, vacancies of two or more on a council in a city with a population of at least 5000 necessitates a special election to fill the vacancies within 120 days.
City attorney Jim McLeroy contends that this is not necessary in cities with a charter that specify an exception to this rule.
Section 2 of the city charter specifies: “If a vacancy occurs in the council the remaining members of the council, by a majority vote, shall appoint a qualified resident elector to serve until the next regular city election. At the next regular city election, a council member shall be chosen by vote.”
The Code seems to correspond with McLeroy’s statement: elections in so called home-rule municipalities may be forgone if a charter or charter amendment specifies another way to fill vacancies.
“I know what’s on Facebook, but I have researched this extensively,” McLeroy said. “There’s a bunch of general law on Facebook, but we’re a home rule city… that distinction seems to be lost, but it’s critically important in the law.”
McLeroy referenced comments by citizen and firefighter John Lambert, who contended “I believe there is more than 12 months left on all the open spots, therefore they should be holding a special election.” Lambert cited the Texas Secretary of State.
The last time the city appointed a council member as opposed to having an election was the May 2018 resignation of former council member Dan Froneberger. Froneberger was replaced with local business owner and economic development corporation member Doug Moore. After serving for a year under his appointment, Moore was elected to his seat in May 2019.
Lambert contends “They [the city] didn’t follow the law” during Moore’s appointment.
McLeroy’s ultimate fear, he says, is that city government will “come to a grinding halt.”
The reason for this, McLeroy said, is his worry the group will fail to achieve a quorum at Friday’s meeting. If such a thing occurs, McLeroy said, “Marc [Maxwell] is going to run the city for the next six months without any council oversight.”
“I trust Marc [Maxwell] to do that,” McLeroy said. “However, our government is designed on a system of checks and balances, and if we don’t have a council, those checks and balances aren’t in place.”
A major snag occurs since Maxwell is an at-will employee, McLeroy said. Maxwell has no contract for his labor with the city and can be fired at any time for any reason or no reason at all. However, this also means Maxwell is free to leave of his own volition for any reason or no reason at all, McLeroy said.
“Marc [Maxwell] could get a job offer somewhere else,” McLeroy said. “He loves being here and wants to stay, but there’s a great deal of uncertainty with his job. He could take a better job.”
At that point, McLeroy says, “our government stops.” Currently, the city has four members of government who are allowed to sign checks for employees: the mayor (formerly Sanders), the mayor pro tempore (formerly Armstrong), Maxwell and finance director Lesa Smith. If Maxwell chooses to leave, three of those signatories will be gone and Smith cannot sign checks by herself as all city checks require two signatures to be released, McLeroy said.
“We don’t pay employees. We don’t pay our bills. The function of government essentially stops,” McLeroy said.
If the group fails to reach a quorum and designate a fourth council member, important projects such as the senior center, street construction, annexation of the Thermo mine property and Pacific Park may not see any progress at least until after a May election and possibly as much as a year, McLeroy said.
Without a functioning council, the city cannot approve bids for work on such projects.
“There are about 30 ongoing projects in the city right now that would stop,” McLeroy said.
No one has approached Maxwell to express a desire for either the appointed or elected council seats, he said. McLeroy said he has heard from “about 15 or 16 people” who are interested in joining the council either by appointment or election.
Maxwell said he is “not aware of any reasons” why the council members resigned and “anything else is conjecture.”
Citizen Brenda Edwards stated, “I can't imagine all [four] of them resigning for no reason.”
The resignation of the four members occurred immediately after an allegedly contentious executive hearing last Tuesday about Maxwell’s role in the city, specifically his continued employment.
While the public was not party to this session, the council chambers were filled with over 100 citizens. During public forum, seven individuals spoke in favor of Maxwell’s employment, and none spoke against employing him. Two citizens spoke about an issue other than Maxwell: creating a curfew for teens in the downtown area.
Sanders turned in a resignation immediately following the meeting and Armstrong, Sanderson and Lucas tendered their resignations the following Monday, according to city attorney Jim McLeroy.
McLeroy declined to comment on the record whether or not the executive session played into the council members resignation.
Maxwell stated he did not threaten Armstrong, Sanders, Sanderson or Lucas. When asked if he was threatened to resign his post, Lucas declined to comment. Sanderson and Armstrong could not be reached for comment.
“We, the people of Sulphur Springs deserve to know why [council members resigned],” citizen Vikki Harmon commented. “Those that resigned are under an obligation to us. We voted for you in trust.”