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The Circus Returns to Elkhart

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Elkhart City Hall

Part One: Ordinances Suspended, Perry Fired

By Will Johnson

Messenger Reporter

ELKHART – Get your popcorn. This is gonna be good.

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, billed itself as The Greatest Show on Earth until the big top came down in 2017.

The governing body of the city of Elkhart, however, is seeking to fill the void left by the closure of the circus and so far, they’ve done a fine job.

As the summer months have rolled by, the city has terminated former City Secretary Carla Sheridan who had a $100,000 termination clause in her contract. City Administrator Judith Cantrell was specifically asked during a June interview if the city planned to honor the contract.

“During the last meeting, they (the city council) agreed to pay her severance,” she said.

Asked again if the city planned to pay, Cantrell replied, “As far as I know. With the agenda and the minutes that we have, they have agreed to do that.”

As the calendar turns to September, Sheridan has not yet been paid.

Since then, the council has held an outdoor session roped off by caution tape. They have met at the foot of a church alter and they have voted to allow firearms in the Elkhart City Hall.

Recently, the council suspended all ordinances within the city, pending further review. What this means is the city ordinances which govern the town are simply no longer in effect.

In addition, the city decided to terminate the employment of Public Works Supervisor BJ Perry who also had a $100,000 termination clause in his contract.

On Tuesday of this week, Perry stopped by the offices of The Messenger to discuss his situation as well as some of the other goings on in the city of Elkhart.

From the outset, Perry made it clear he was not a disgruntled employee seeking to damage his former employer and repeatedly indicated he was grateful for the opportunity to have served the citizens of Elkhart for the past nine years.

He did stress, however, he wanted a chance to clear his name and reputation. Perry also indicated he would not slander any current or former employees, but he would tell the truth, as he knew it.   

Following his termination on Aug. 19, Perry reported one of the city’s wells had an issue and said he was blamed for the problem.

“It is rumored from fairly reliable sources that I’m a suspect,” he said. “The thing that gets me about that is the charge isn’t vandalism. It’s not criminal mischief. It’s terrorism. They (city officials) are not putting this out there because they would have to prove it. But, I’m just waiting for the day that someone says I committed an act of terrorism.”

Perry explained in today’s climate, any type of action involving water or wastewater – including spray painting a name on a water tower – can be considered terrorism.

As to how his termination came about, Perry said, “On Aug. 15, at 5:45 in the afternoon, I was told I was suspended with pay and I would be on the (city council’s) agenda on Aug. 19 to discuss the outcome of an investigation they (the city) were performing.” 

The reason he was given for the suspension concerned the release of wastewater by Eagle Rail Car. Perry indicated Eagle Rail Car is supposed to document what is in the released water and submit it to the city. The city, in turn, would then submit the results to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

“I had never done that in my history with Elkhart. No supervisor before me had done that in the history of Elkhart. Eagle Rail Car – I can recall them giving quarterly sample results, but nothing more than that. I said it had never been done but it was brought to my attention that what hadn’t been done and what was supposed to be done are two different things. I had to agree,” he said.

He said he was informed the city would call TCEQ Region V Wastewater Inspector Patrick Connor and see what course of action should be taken.

“I received no documentation from Patrick Connor stating what I had done wrong. On Monday, Aug. 19, the council showed about 20 pictures of what we had done wrong at the wastewater facility. There was debris laying on the ground from when we de-ragged the aerators at the lagoon. We had spent all week out there the previous week de-ragging those pumps. There was probably 1,000 pounds of rags out there, wet,” Perry indicated.

Based on his experience, the former public works director said if you allow the rags to dry, the 1,000 pounds of wet rags shrink to about 200 pounds. 

“They had pictures of the aerators in the aeration basin and told me they were going too fast. They are one speed. You can’t control the speed. They go the speed they go. They told me the water in the clarifier wasn’t moving because the pictures showed it was still,” he explained.

“All of the things – or 98% of the things I was written up or terminated for – were housekeeping. All of the things, had I been given the opportunity to correct them would have personally, by myself, taken about four hours,” Perry said.

Following his termination, Perry said he spoke with Eric Clark, who replaced Perry with the city, and Clark reportedly informed Perry he was correct in his four-hour estimate. He also spoke with TCEQ Water Inspector Jennifer Bruton who was also contacted concerning the matter, and according to Perry, the water inspector felt his termination was not warranted.

“It’s personal,” he said. “In my honest opinion, it’s over the contract. That’s just the way it is.”

In Section 6, under the heading of “Termination and Severance,” Subsection 6.1 of Perry’s Employment Agreement states, “In the event the Council, by a majority of the full City Council, with no less than five (5) members present, during the Term of this Agreement terminates the Supervisor, and Supervisor is willing to continue to perform the duties of the Public Works Supervisor under this Agreement, then, in that event, the City agrees to provide the following:

  • A severance payment of One Hundred Thousand Dollars ($100,000).
  • Supervisor shall also be paid for all unused and accrued vacation and sick leave.
  • This severance shall be paid in a lump sum within thirty (30) days of termination. 

Also in Section 6, Subsection 6.4 of Perry’s contract, states the city is not obligated to pay severance to Perry if he is convicted of a felony, a crime involving moral turpitude, any criminal offense above a Class C misdemeanor or fails to maintain all of his required licenses.

None of the reasons given for Perry’s termination fall under these categories.

“The reasons they gave for terminating me were for not complying with TCEQ rules and regulations, regarding the wastewater plant – the documentation on Eagle Rail Car. I didn’t get a chance to resolve the issues. I talked with TCEQ on Wednesday of last week about the whole thing. I was told, the housekeeping issues, TCEQ would have come down, issued a field citation and given us X number of days to fix this. Like I said, the majority of this I could correct in just a few hours,” Perry said.

In regard to the issue with Eagle Rail Car, Perry said he believed the worst case scenario would be that the city would be fined. However, he added he felt the probable punishment would be a slap on the wrist from TCEQ and an admonishment not to do this again.

“I asked, when I was doing the exit interview, if they were going to honor the contract. I was told no. They didn’t give a reason why. They just said no, they were not going to acknowledge anything in that contract. I asked when Mrs. Sheridan was terminated, I inquired about the contract and Judith Cantrell told me the contract was illegal. With her 20 year legal career, she has come to find out that this was completely illegal,” he said with a hint of sarcasm.

It should be noted that while Cantrell previously worked as a paralegal, she is not an attorney.

The contract was drawn up by attorney Blake Armstrong, who served as the city of Elkhart’s legal counsel until recently.

“Personally, I believe the contract is pretty solid because it was one of the requests I made when I returned to the city of Elkhart,” he said.

Perry had taken a brief hiatus from the city to work as a salesman in 2016 before returning to the city in 2017.

“I asked for $80,000 a year when I came back. They said they couldn’t do it. I said I wanted $72K to $75K. I wanted a three to five year contract and I would like a severance package. My reasoning for that was because when I left in May of 2016, my resignation letter said some things about formal council members who are now current council members (Lucia Butler and Raymond Dunlap) and the husband (Randy McCoy) to the current mayor (Jennifer McCoy). I said some things that were not taken too well, but they were true. I had no reason to lie. The resignation letter is still on Google. I said some things that were facts but they weren’t taken too well by the former administration,” Perry said.

He added, “I feared retaliation. I think me being terminated was a retaliation factor as well as a wrongful termination. I don’t feel what I did or didn’t do was a justifiable reason for termination.”

The resignation letter, delivered to the council in April of 2016, reads in part, “I took a blow on the chin when former Mayor Raymond Dunlap had me remove signs that belonged to Elkhart Oaks Nursing Home and had me call the State Fire Marshal to investigate their facility in retaliation for his termination from employment there. I also had Council member Lucia Butler ask me how we could get Council member Billy Jack Wright for his gate across Watkins St. Council member Errol Tatum called the employees rats for turning in Gregg Lewis for his illegal water line and Council member Randy McCoy yelled at me behind closed doors during a private meeting over a formal complaint that I had filed on Mr. Lewis. The leaders of the city have been less than leaders at times and the stability of our jobs was always questioned.” 

Part two of this article will delve into some of the other questionable events witnessed by Perry during his tenure with the city of Elkhart.                           

Will Johnson may be contacted via e-mail at wjohnson@messenger-news.com.