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Compensatory contract for retired employee finds little purchase with Eckhardt

Wednesday, March 22, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

The Travis County Commissioners Court found itself deeply divided on Tuesday over a proposal to award the county’s recently retired purchasing agent with $30,000 she hasn’t earned.

On Feb. 28, Cyd Grimes quietly stepped down from the post she had held since 1993. She had originally planned to retire later this year. According to County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, Grimes recently “petitioned the Purchasing Board for vacation accrual at the level of $30,000.”

However, much like elected officials, the appointed purchasing agent does not qualify for vacation time, so the Purchasing Board declined Grimes’ request.

“When she found out that she couldn’t get paid, or past the thing that quite frankly legally we can’t do, then I looked for, OK, is there another way that you can be compensated,” Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who along with Commissioner Jeff Travillion sits on the Purchasing Board alongside three district judges, told reporters.

On Tuesday, Daugherty and Travillion sponsored an item that would pave the way for a three-month, $30,000 contract for Grimes’ assistance in the county’s search for her replacement.

“Nobody knows more about purchasing than Cyd. After you’ve been here for 25 years, you’ve probably got that down,” Daugherty explained.

However, he added that there was another element to his thought process: “Quite frankly, one thing I also want is, you go away, and I don’t want to worry about a lawsuit.”

One major hitch to the idea of awarding Grimes the contract rests in the county’s ethics policy, which bars certain officials, including the purchasing agent, from entering into a consulting contract with the county for at least one year from the end of their employment.

The court could waive that prohibition, but must first publicly disclose at least seven days before taking action that such a proposed waiver even exists. The item before the court on Tuesday was that disclosure.

Eckhardt was obviously skeptical and noted that the full Purchasing Board, which will ultimately appoint Grimes’ successor, did not take a formal vote to ask for additional expertise in the vetting of candidates. She also cited an email sent by former Purchasing Office employee Lana Boling who wrote, “Please look into your heart and know that this is not the right thing to do. The contract you would be awarding her could be done by someone in HR in a matter of days, not three months.“

Boling also urged the court, “Don’t be threatened that a lawsuit would follow.”

Commissioner Brigid Shea joined Eckhardt in her skepticism of the contract.

“If the genesis of this was originally her request for vacation accrual, which she was not entitled to under the law, that doesn’t make sense to me,” said Shea.

Noting that the item required no action, Eckhardt pledged she would bring up the idea of the contract again only if two commissioners formally requested it. As she tried to move on, Travillion asked to discuss the item with legal counsel in executive session. When he insisted over Eckhardt’s hesitation, she hypothesized he wanted to discuss any potential lawsuit against the county.

“Interesting how quick you caught up on that one,” Travillion chuckled.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist,” replied Eckhardt.

When reached by phone on Tuesday, Grimes herself made any speculation about lawsuits a relatively simple affair.

“For them to do what they did to me, I should sue them. I should sue her,” Grimes said, referring to Eckhardt.

Grimes indicated she is still “bitter” over a story in the Austin American-Statesman last year that reported that Eckhardt and Daugherty had been secretly conspiring to force Grimes out of office one year early. Eckhardt was a member of the Purchasing Board at that time.

Grimes ultimately secured her job through her planned retirement in October 2017, but only after signing an “expectations agreement” with the board in August that limited unexplained absences and telecommuting, and also encouraged her upon threat of discipline “to maintain professional communications at all times” with county employees, officials and the public.

Regarding her decision to retire prematurely, Grimes told the Austin Monitor, “Sarah continued to, what I call bully me, and I was at a place in my employment and career – I’ve been working for 35 years – that I just could not stay there. I was basically told not to stand up to her.”

She added, “Sarah wanted me gone and I left.”

Eckhardt told reporters, “I do not do the hiring and firing” of the county purchasing agent.

A previous version of this story stated the purchasing agent qualifies for vacation time, when it does not.

Photo by John Flynn.

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