City Manager John Blair will not face a three-day suspension for alleged ethics violations, the City Council and the mayor decided early Thursday morning in a 3-6 vote after meeting in a nearly two-hour executive session.
Several community members spoke in support of Blair during “petitions from the floor” prior to the closed-door session and subsequent vote, including his second-grade teacher at Chaparral Elementary Betty Montoya. She described her former student as someone with “integrity, morals and values.”
“He is an amazing young man, and I think it is a shame to put him through what you all are putting him through because he deserves a chance,” Montoya said. “People make mistakes. If we can learn from our mistakes; it makes us better people.”
District 3 Councilors Chris Rivera and Lee Garcia introduced a resolution proposing a three-day unpaid suspension for Blair on Nov. 8. The move came after controversy over Blair’s choice not to disclose to the City Council an August letter addressed to Mayor Alan Webber from the Department of Finance Administration regarding the state’s plans to continue withholding capital outlay funds for projects until the city’s late audits are complete.
Finance Director Emily Oster continues to predict a Dec. 4 submission for the city’s Fiscal Year 2022 audit, and the city announced Nov. 20 it aims to submit the FY23 audit by May 2024.
Garcia tells SFR the grounds for his suspension call come down to “being kept in the dark,” saying the contents of the letter included answers to questions councilors asked at previous meetings.
“The letter clearly identified money that was going to be withheld because of our late audit situation…When information like that is kept from you, it almost seems as if ‘Well, what authority do we have as councilors?’” Garcia says. “So I think that as governing body members, we’re not just responsible for voting on monies and appropriating finances, approving finances and creating resolutions and ordinances, but we also have a responsibility to have a checks and balances over the administration.”
Following the publication of the letter’s contents, Blair told councilors he had not shared the letter due to “complicated policy and political and communication issues related to trying to resolve the issue,” adding “the fewer people who knew, the better.” He later issued an apology for that decision.
“Hindsight is always 20/20, and I understand that I should have shared the Department of Finance Administration (DFA) letter with City Councilors and the public in a timely manner. I apologize for not doing that,” Blair wrote.
Webber tells SFR he believes Blair did not share the letter largely because “there was no news” within its content.
“I think it’s safe to say John has been about as transparent a city manager we’ve ever had. He meets regularly with the City Council members and gives them one-on-one briefings,” Webber says. “So it’s not black and white. I haven’t heard from [Garcia or Rivera about] what they think the grievance really is that causes them to want an executive session to talk about the suspension, nor is there real clarity in my mind as to why this would warrant a suspension.”
Webber adds the proceedings against Blair are “not productive for the city” and District 3′s Garcia is the only councilor to not meet with him or Blair about the issue. Garcia says he’s “open to conversations,” but it hasn’t happened yet.
“I’m all about extending an olive branch, but it goes both ways,” Garcia says. “It’s not just one sided.”
District 1 Councilor Renee Villarreal, whose term on the council ends in January after she chose not to run for re-election, tells SFR she did not agree with the city manager’s decision to withhold the information. However, the bid to suspend Blair is not “getting to the root of the problem.” The real issue, she says, lies in the current government structure.
“It’s not an equitable way to have a balance of power and access to information. So because the city manager, the city clerk and the city attorney are all hired and fired by the mayor, it creates this imbalance and somewhat creates, I don’t know, maybe they’re more beholden to the mayor…In this case, the city manager is the fall guy. And I don’t know if that makes sense, but he’s going to take the hit when actually the letter was addressed, in this instance, to the mayor,” Villarreal says. “We’re problem solvers on the Council, so it would make sense to want to share this information to try to figure out solutions…I just think it makes for better governance when everybody has access to the same information.”
Garcia, Rivera and District 2 Councilor Michael Garcia voted in favor of the resolution, while the remaining councilors and the mayor voted against.