By Brian Bearden, TSB Contributing Writer
City Manager Jason Gray’s ears and eyes were burning Tuesday night as angry citizens jammed into the city council chambers.
The agenda included items on Hank’s Texas Grill, Dawgs N Hawgs, Adriatica, Gateway, apartments and housing but it wasn’t what was on the program that drew their ire. Lori Loftin sat in the front row and held a sign urging the city council to give the city manager “the axe.” A realtor attended her first city council meeting, where she wore a button that said “Say No to Jason Gray.”
What stirred up citizens and drew them away from dinner time in their homes? The abrupt Oct. 5 firing of Police Chief Doug Kowalski and the quick naming of replacement Joe Williams.
In citizen’s comments, Jolie Williams made her first trip to city hall. She told the council that she was not comfortable with the way Gray handled the firing.
“His actions put you in a very difficult situation,” she said. The passionate realtor, who is not related to the new police chief, also created buttons crossing out the city manager. Her Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/McKinneySaysNotoJasonGray has attracted more than 200 likes since Oct. 11. The page bills itself as an online “Petition to Inform City Council that Jason Gray must be let go for his actions.” Another woman, Lori Loftin, sat on the front row with a homemade sign asking the council to “Give Gray the axe.”
The YouTube posting of the change upset some.
“I am appalled and shocked,” Juanita Horne said. “Are we so modernized that we fire someone on YouTube? We are becoming more like the city council in Dallas. This was totally out of control and ridiculous.”
Jon Dellantonia said the firing was amateurish. He suggested the city manager should be immediately placed on administrative leave and a search needs to begin nationwide for a new chief.
“You have to right the ship, there is a huge credibility gap,” Dellantonia said. “This smacks of cronyism,. It can not be tolerated.”
Another citizen at Tuesday night’s meeting commented that there was no way the city manager posted a video about the firing of Kowalski. However, Gray answered a question in a city statement: “The YouTube video contained the same language that would have been contained in a memo. It was posted so that officers on all shifts could have the information at the same time with absolute consistency. It was sent out from me directly to employees in the department only after I had a personal conversation with Chief Kowalski.”
Gray, however, did not write the headline on a YouTube page: “McKinney City Manager Jason Gray Fires the Police Chief Via YouTube.” The video: http://youtu.be/ry5OKfA5moI
Horne said the way it was handled did not show respect for the residents of McKinney.
Tracy Rath said, “We are still waiting for a why.” Channel 5 took on that question: http://www.nbcdfw.com/news/local/McKinney-City-Manager-Explains-Chiefs-Dismissal-174491151.html
Rath asked, “Does Jason Gray represent the best interests of the City of McKinney?”
Peter Bailey told the council that “Doug Kowalski was good at engaging citizens, and he was good at morale and leadership as McKinney rode the wave and increased in population.”
McKinney citizens at the meeting and some council members drew a lecture from the council’s Geralyn Kever and David Brooks, who said it was unfair to attack someone who can’t talk back, referring to the city manager.
“Everyone on the city council considers public safety our highest priority,” Kever said. She said that rational citizens would agree with the reason for the firing if they knew what was presented to the council in executive session by the city manager.
“Give me a leader,” Kever said. “We can’t talk about it. In terms of the decision, give me someone who sees something that is wrong and acts on it. He saw something that was wrong and said this needed to be changed.”
Brooks said that opposition to Gray’s decision appeared to be an attack on the city manager – council form of government. The At-Large councilman said that Gray has made five significant changes in city departments besides the change at police chief.
“Not one time did you hear anybody complain,” Brooks said, adding so much misinformation has come out about the firing of the 12-year veteran leader of the McKinney police force.
Mayor Brian Loughmiller, Councilman Ray Ricchi and Mayor Pro-Tem Travis Ussery had issued statements a few days before Tuesday’s council meeting. Brooks took issue with his fellow council members making statements.
Mayor Loughmiller defended the right to make a statement on a personnel change, saying: “We are following the city charter in doing that.”
In the citizen’s comment section of the meeting, Jason Burress said, “Mrs. Kever, with all due respect, you imply that if we were all in that room with you, we would all agree with the reason for the firing.”
And yet, Burress pointed out, several members of the council stated they had problems with the way the firing was handled.
“They did not buy it,” Burress said, adding that Chief Kowalski in fact was the one who was being impugned in public by Kever.
“Chief Kowalski is the one who is essentially being bound by confidentiality,” Burress said. “Chief Kowalski was a beloved chief with 12 years of service on the job for the community.”
Burress said that he believes because of the importance of the police chief to the city’s public safety mission that this personnal decision should have included the council ahead of time.
“The city manager should have apprised the city council – if nothing else,” Burress said. “That didn’t happen. That is unfortunate.”
City Manager Jason Gray said that he will learn from the reaction to the firing.
“I appreciate the commentary of the public,” Gray told the council Tuesday night. “I will learn to the extent that it is productive.”
Gray said, “I will not disclose the reasons” why personnel changes are made. He added that what he does is “truly based on what benefits the entire community. My intent is what is best for this community in the long run, and God willing, for the rest of my career.”
Brooks said that he fully supports Gray, and that McKinney was on the right track in adding jobs, corporations, homes and money to the tax base to keep improving the city’s quality of life. Brooks said Gray had turned the city around, made improvements in many departments and kept the city on budget.
Brooks said Gray’s decisions have moved the city up a rung in quality and away from days when things didn’t get done.
“We are not going back to that as long as I am on the council,” Brooks said.
Day said, “We charged him [Gray] to manage our city. I never expected we would agree with every decision. We also asked him to manage our economic development. That is not something you normally as the city manager to do. We have a fine city manager, and I support him.”
Kever said she was told before Gray’s arrival that developers found the city staff difficult to deal with under the last city manager.
“They don’t say that anymore,” Kever said.
Day said he was encouraged that the McKinney Police Association stands behind their new chief.
Mayor Brian Loughmiller said, “This was a difficult decision. We have to move forward as a community in a positive way.”
STOIC NEW CHIEF
New Chief Joe Williams sat silently through charges that he was hired only because he was a crony of the city manager.
Councilman Don Day said, “We believe in giving Chief Joe Williams a chance. He was a fine deputy city manager. He will be a fine police chief. I’m not buying any of that business about cronyism.”
Councilman Roger Harris said he supports the city manager’s strategy and would support Williams in employing tactics to meet the city’s goals. Harris said he was dismayed by what he has read. “The misinformation has been astounding,” Harris said. “I can’t say enough good things about him [Gray]. In a few years, looking back on what has been accomplished during this bad economy, you will be in awe of what has been accomplished. We live in a truly incredible community.”
As for Dawgs N Hawgs, no one attended the public hearing offered by the council Tuesday. The city council passed a motion to continue Dawgs N Hawgs’ specific use permit. Items on Adriatica were tabled until the Nov. 6 meeting.
The city council met in executive session to discuss possible litigation with Hank’s Texas Grill, which the city has found in violation of code on several items.