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Final ethics hearing set for Granite Shoals mayor

Granite Shoals Ethics Review Commission, April 12, 2023

The Granite Shoals Ethics Review Commission deliberates on a complaint filed against Mayor Aaron Garcia. Commissioner Jeff Kahl (left) sits beside Chairman Mark Morren and Commissioner Seth Smith. This is the second case that the commission, created in 2022, has heard. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

The Granite Shoals Ethics Review Commission will hold a final hearing concerning an ethics complaint over an alleged failure to fulfill a public information request filed against Mayor Aaron Garcia. The decision was made after a preliminary hearing on Wednesday, April 12. Garcia strongly denied the allegation, providing evidence that showed his full compliance with the request.

The commission heard sworn statements from Garcia and the complainant, Suzanne Ort, during the preliminary hearing and ultimately determined to set a final hearing on April 24, during which they will decide if a violation has been committed. If so, the commission could impose sanctions against Garcia, which would be escalating levels of written reprimands.

Granite Shoals resident Robin Deberard raised concerns during public comment at the Wednesday hearing about potential conflicts of interest on the commission because the complaint involved the search for a new city manager. Commissioner Seth Smith is the brother-in-law of current City Manager Peggy Smith, and Commissioner Jeff Kahl is documented as voicing his support for Smith and contempt for the council members who opposed her hiring, which includes Garcia.

Ort, wife of Councilor Phil Ort, claims that Garcia left out important documents when he responded to a public information request from the city secretary. Garcia said he did send the documents and that Ort is attempting to discredit him because he was the arresting officer in her husband’s 2021 felony-level criminal mischief case in which he is accused of vandalizing a car in the Marble Falls H-E-B parking lot.

Garcia is a sergeant with the Marble Falls Police Department. A status hearing on Phil Ort’s case is set for May 12.

“It is very clear to me, and apparent to others that I have spoken to, that Mrs. Ort and Phil Ort’s attempt to discredit me with these ethics complaints is because I was the arresting officer in Mr. Ort’s criminal case,” Garcia told the commission. “It is my belief the whole purpose of this is retaliation because there is a possibility that I am going to have to testify against Mr. Ort for the state in the coming trial.”

Suzanne Ort also filed three complaints against Garcia for alleged violations of the city charter, which he addressed during the City Council’s regular meeting on April 11. Those complaints are currently under investigation by a subcommittee consisting of councilors Steve Hougen, Kevin Flack, and Michael Berg.

The Ethics Review Commission was assembled for the first time on city record in 2022. The commission met and handled an accusation against Phil Ort for the same charge of failing to comply with a public information request and ultimately found him guilty, issuing its strongest admonition, a written letter of censure.

In the complaint against Garcia, Suzanne Ort accused him of not including two attachments in an email he forwarded to City Attorney Joshua Katz on Feb. 6 in response to a public information request made by City Secretary Dawn Wright on Jan. 30 for all correspondence between the mayor and the executive recruitment firm Strategic Government Resources, which was contracted by the city to help find a prospective city manager in October 2022. Garcia drew heat from members of the City Council and city staff when he approved a position profile brochure without consulting members of a special search committee. The contract with SGR was ultimately terminated and Peggy Smith was chosen for the job.

Garcia presented printouts of his email exchange with Katz, showing that the attachments were included in his forwarded emails, but this documentation was not accepted by the Ethics Review Commission because it was not in their packets, which had to be in hand seven days prior to the preliminary hearing, according to Article 6 Section 2-171 (4) (C) (4) of the city’s code of ordinances.

Garcia presented with a printout of the email he forwarded to City Secretary Wright, the same one he had forwarded to Katz. Two attachments were shown to be included.

“I cannot accept the information given to us,” said the Ethics Review Commission Chairman Mark Morren. “It’s still on the table, we haven’t looked at it, we’re not allowed to without it running through the city secretary and running through everyone’s packet.”

The emails and attachments in question were obtained by Ort through a lengthy information chain, which could have led to the attachments not ending up in her version of the emails. The attachments were a draft of the city manager search outline and a draft version of the position profile created by SGR for the city manager search.

As confirmed by Wright, the information was obtained in the following manner:

  • Wright filed a public information request with the city for any correspondence between Garcia and SGR on Jan. 30, 2023.
  • Garcia complied with the request and forwarded all correspondence (including attachments) to City Attorney Joshua Katz for review on Feb. 6.
  • Katz then forwarded the information he obtained from Garcia to Wright.
  • Wright then forwarded the information to all council members for their review.
  • Suzanne Ort filed a public information request for all correspondence between Garcia and SGR on March 7, which was fulfilled by her husband, Councilor Ort, who forwarded her the information he received from Wright.
  • Ort also obtained the original emails from SGR and saw that two attachments were not included in the version she received from her husband, leading her to file a complaint against Garcia on March 16 for his alleged failure to comply with Wright’s Jan. 30 public information request.

“I do feel it was a violation of Texas government code section 552 (that) Mr. Garcia, temporary custodian, did fail to provide all correspondence between himself and SGR upon receipt of request for public information,” Ort told the commission.

Garcia again asserted that this was a personal attack against him in retaliation for his arrest of Phil Ort.

“It’s clear to me that Mrs. Ort is doing the dirty work for her husband,” he said. “Mrs. Wright was the public information requester. If she did not see those attachments in the information she requested, why is she not the one complaining about it? Clearly, I sent everything to Josh Katz.”

The Ethics Review Commission members chose to move forward to a final hearing on April 24 and expressed their desire to do things the right way, regardless of the legitimacy of the complaint.

“It’s our job to listen to the citizens of Granite Shoals,” Morren said. “Some people may not like what we do or what we say, but what we do here is not detrimental to your career (referring to Garcia). In reality, it’s a hand slap. It’s our goal and our job to do the best that we can because what we do today sets precedence on what we do in the future. If we are not accurate in what we do, if we don’t give people with complaints the timeframe and the knowledge of what’s going on, then we haven’t done our job, and we are going to do our job.”

Conflict of interest

Granite Shoals resident Robin Deberard expressed concerns about conflicts of interest on the commission during the public comment portion of the hearing.

“Seth Smith is related familially to Peggy Smith, and because he is her brother-in-law and because this ethics violation correlates directly to the search for city manager and because his sister-in-law is the … city manager, I think there is enough conflict of interest there to look at recusing yourself from deliberation and any kind of vote on this matter,” she said.

She then addressed Commissioner Kahl and cited his on-the-record complaints regarding the criticisms and opposition to Peggy Smith as city manager, citing a quote from a March 7 council meeting in which he said “… criticism of Peggy from the cheap seats and a few council members … .”

Garcia and Councilor Samantha Ortis were the only members of the council to oppose Smith’s hiring and advocate for the continued city manager search with SGR.

CORRECTION: incorrectly reported that Suzanne Ort had filed her complaint against Aaron Garcia for his failure to fulfill a public information request that she submitted in a story published on March 29. The complaint was filed by Ort against Garcia for his alleged failure to fulfill a public information request made by City Secretary Dawn Wright.