Kyle City Council deadlocked over interviewing judge candidates
Friday, November 15, 2013 by Andy Sevilla
KYLE — After an hour-long discussion with failed motions and circling banter, Kyle City Council members sent home four applicants seeking the city’s Municipal Judge position without interviewing them as scheduled at a special called meeting on Nov. 7.
Current Municipal Judge Sundra Spears’ base salary is $24,000 a year plus city benefits, which include health insurance. City officials say she generally works for the city two days a month, sometimes three. In the past, some Council members have expressed concern about Spears’ job performance.
One applicant for the position drove from Victoria, a second came from Round Rock, according to Council members’ discussions. Members were deadlocked three to three on whether to proceed with the interviews. Kyle Mayor Lucy Johnson was away on separate city business.
Council Members Chad Benninghoff, Becky Selbera and David Wilson voiced concern, saying Judge Spears had not been notified of the city’s plans to interview others for her position and that moving forward may be “unethical.”
City Manager Lanny Lambert told Council at a September meeting that he informed Spears of the council’s plan to open the position and that “she wasn’t pleased.”
Benninghoff was absent from that meeting.
“I’m still having a difficult time why we are even…interviewing judges,” he said last week.
Council members decided with a 4-2 vote in September to request Letters of Interest and Statements of Qualifications from people interested in the job, a contract position that expires every two years.
Assistant City Manager James Earp told Council members Texas law stipulates that if a council doesn’t replace a municipal court judge when a contract expires, that judge is automatically reappointed for a two-year term. Spears has held the post since January 2004.
Benninghoff asked his colleagues, “How would we all feel if we were in a position for nine years and we have good relations with the city…and one day we see that our job is posted in the newspaper?”
“I’m kind of ashamed to sit on a council that’s doing something like this to a person who has city benefits – an employee – someone who has been doing a really good job and has worked really hard over the years for the city, from what I understand,” Benninghoff said.
Mayor Pro Tem Samantha LeMense said she brought the matter up in September because Spears’ contract is up every two years.
“It has nothing to do with being ethically vile,” LeMense said. “It is more or less making sure that we are getting the most for our taxpayers’ dollars … Because it hadn’t been reviewed in so long that I had to pause and say, ‘Why not?’”
Some Council members previously voiced concern about Spears, who was unwilling to provide magistrate services on occasional weekends and holidays at the Hays County Jail without more pay, despite an informal agreement between the agencies. Spears’ move came after the Council rejected her request for a raise. The council provided her with a 3.5 percent cost-of-living-adjustment, the same as city employees.
Ultimately, only LeMense, Diane Hervol and Ray Bryant wanted to continue. “I think out of courtesy we should be moving forward,” Hervol said. “… The municipal court judge has a contract, (and) she’s aware … the contract is terminating. There’s some due diligence on her part … to know that her contract is terminating. However, I do know that she was aware during budget season that the possibility may come up.”
Sticking to his guns, Wilson said out of respect to the applicants, city staff could conduct interviews and provide Council with feedback.
“I think we’re shunning our responsibility as a council,” Hervol said “This is under our purview to interview a municipal court judge and … to make sure that that particular position is filled. I just think that it’s irresponsible of us not to move forward.”
Deadlocked, Council members did not move forward with interviews, at one point even disagreeing on a motion to adjourn.
Johnson could be the swing vote — if her September comments are any indication, Council members may ultimately interview the applicants.
“It would be irresponsible for us, no matter how good any city employee was, to continue to automatically renew a contract every two years for the last decade with very minimal review…” Johnson said in September. “This is a healthy exercise. I think when we begin to become loyal to our employees … above the loyalty we have to our citizens, that’s when city government starts to break down.”
The Municipal Judge topic will be on the agenda for the next Council meeting on Nov. 19.
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