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Granite Shoals mayor expected to resign as council chaos continues

Granite Shoals City Council on Sept. 27, 2022

The mayor’s seat was unexpectedly empty during an entire Granite Shoals City Council meeting Sept. 27. Mayor Will Skinner’s absence was marked as 'unexcused' by the council, including Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Garcia (left) and Councilor Samantha Ortis, who each stated that Skinner told them and the rest of the council that he planned to resign. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

The turmoil surrounding Granite Shoals leadership grew with the news of Mayor Will Skinner’s potential resignation, the official censure of and possible criminal charges against Councilor Phil Ort, the formation of an ethics review commission, and the search for a permanent city manager all taking place at City Council’s regular meeting Tuesday, Sept. 27.

Imminent resignation

Skinner was absent from Tuesday’s meeting, leaving Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Garcia as acting mayor. Garcia is the newest member of the council, having defeated Bruce Jones in the May election. 

When Skinner failed to arrive by 6 p.m., Garcia moved to mark his absence as “not accepted,” stating that it was unexpected and therefore not excused. The council voted unanimously in favor of the unexcused absence.

Skinner spoke to DailyTrib.com the next day and explained he was moving to a home in Kingsland.

“I got the opportunity to move out of the city, which is good for me and my family,” he said. “Because of that, I can no longer sit as mayor.”

Garcia told DailyTrib.com the night of the meeting that Skinner had contacted him and other members of the council over the weekend, telling them he expected to resign in the coming days. Councilor Samantha Ortis corroborated this information, saying Skinner told her he found a home in Kingsland and planned to move.

According to Granite Shoals’ charter, the mayor must live within the city to serve in city government. Skinner has not yet given his written resignation, but he expects to make a decision this week, he said.

Skinner was sworn in as mayor in October 2020 after former Mayor Carl Brugger resigned following a recall election. Skinner was mayor pro tem at the time. The recall stemmed from controversy over a $37,000 pay raise for then-City Manager Jeff Looney, who has since been fired. A leader in the recall, Councilor Phil Ort recently resigned, but rescinded the next day and remains on the council.

If Skinner’s resignation is submitted and accepted, Garcia will become acting mayor of Granite Shoals until the next mayoral election in May 2023, at which point, he could choose to run against any other candidates. A new councilor will be appointed to replace Garcia on the council’s Place 2 seat, and a new mayor pro tem will be appointed by the council. 

Censure

Also on Tuesday, the council passed a resolution to officially censure Ort for violating the city’s standards of conduct and the Public Information Act. Ort is accused of destroying, tampering with, and falsifying public complaints concerning his proposed Dark Skies Ordinance

No legal consequences or tangible punishments are attached to the letter of censure, but it is the highest form of condemnation available to the city.

Granite Shoals resident Kiel Arnone submitted a public information request to the city on Aug. 30 to see the 41 complaints Ort claimed he received about intrusive lighting issues. Ort failed to hand over the complaints by the 10-business-day deadline, which passed on Sept. 13.

Ort claimed to be protecting the privacy of his constituents, saying he would rather suffer the consequences of violating the Public Information Act than share their identities with Arnone. 

The council addressed Ort’s violation and his recent behavior on social media during a special called meeting Sept. 19, when evidence was presented that he had fabricated most of the 41 complaints using Facebook Messenger. Most of the messages appeared to have been sent from a single account: the Facebook page of Ort’s pet parrot, Prissy.

The results of this meeting were the council’s issuance of the letter of censure and the formation of an ethics review commission to study Ort’s actions and determine if he violated the city charter, which could lead to criminal charges.

Criminal charges

At Tuesday’s meeting, Councilor Ortis requested that discussion or possible action concerning criminal charges against Ort be added to the council’s next agenda. According to Ortis, there is precedent for the city to file charges against Ort for the alleged destruction of public records and the violation of the Public Information Act. 

Arnone, who originally filed the public information request, submitted Ort’s violation to the Texas Attorney General’s Office on Sept. 14. The case was then moved to the 33rd/424th District Attorney’s Office, which includes Burnet County. At the time of writing, the district attorney had not addressed Arnone’s submission.

Ort is accused of violating the Public Information Act in the following ways: failure to provide access to public information, release of confidential information, and willful destruction or alteration of public information.

Each of these violations is considered a misdemeanor, carrying fines and jail times. Failure to provide access to public information alone comes with up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.

Ethics review commission

Three members were appointed to the ethics review commission Tuesday. Councilor Ron Munos made the motion to approve Granite Shoals residents Jefferey Kahl, Mark Morren, and Seth Smith as commission members with Ort seconding.

“I’d say that all three of the (commission members) you’re proposing are fine by me,” Ort said. “I second that.”

As of this story’s publication, no formal complaint had been filed with the city against Ort, meaning the commission cannot act on his case at this time. If a complaint is filed, the commission will study Ort’s actions and determine if he has violated the city charter, which could lead to sanctions, further censure, or removal from office.

While Ort’s actions instigated the formation of the ethics review commission, this is not the commission’s sole purpose. Members will serve two-year terms and handle all city cases of potential ethics violations.

New city manager talks

The council also discussed possible options for a new city manager. Interim City Manager Peggy Smith submitted an application for the full-time position, but the council is considering using a recruitment firm to find more candidates.

Garcia was appointed by the council to review recruitment firms and discern the best course of action by the council’s next scheduled meeting, which is 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 11.

“I feel like it’s time that we start the process to get a permanent city manager in this position,” Ortis said. “In my opinion, with the status of our current council and all of our front page news articles, I think that it might be a good idea to hire a third-party person to look for a city manager.”

Councilors Munos and Garcia agreed with Ortis, citing the benefit of having a professional service look at multiple candidates on behalf of the city.

Councilor Steve Hougen pushed back on this, noting that Smith could be a perfectly viable candidate.

“We need to look at the strengths of our current interim city manager because she represents a lot of historic knowledge and stability during this time of rough seas,” Hougen said. “Right now, I would not be in favor of rapid change.”

Ortis disagreed with Hougen’s use of “rapid change,” citing months of turmoil in city business.

“What we need right now is change,” she said. “Since February, we have not done anything but put on a spectacle for our citizens.”

Smith was appointed interim city manager when Jeff Looney was fired from the position on June 15 after months of controversy dating back to February

The council eventually agreed that it would be best to find the most suitable candidate for the job using a recruitment firm, whether it was Smith or an outside hire. 

dakota@thepicayune.com