A bitterly divided Payson Town Council abruptly fired Town Manager LaRon Garrett during its Aug. 8 regular meeting.
Garrett has served the town for 25 years, mostly in the engineering department prior to his Oct. 1, 2015 appointment as town manager.
The vote revealed a persistent divide on the council. Mayor Tom Morrissey, Vice Mayor Janell Sterner and Councilors Suzy Tubbs-Avakian and Jim Ferris voted to fire Garrett.
Councilors Steve Smith, Barbara Underwood and Chris Higgins dissented, saying they had been given no notice of the action.
The debate capped a meeting that had been filled with celebrations, including a welcome for the new police chief and toasting the arrival of water in the C.C. Cragin pipeline. But the mood abruptly shifted when Ferris made a motion to, “move in accordance with section 2.A of the employment contract dated Oct. 15, 2015 between the Town of Payson and LaRon G. Garrett to terminate said contract without cause effective 12 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019.”
Garrett’s contract stipulates he would get a three-month severance payment on his $144,000 salary, unless he’s fired “for cause.”
The council majority directed him to clean out his desk and leave by noon on Friday.
Higgins opposed the action saying, “there needs to be a process that’s in place to protect (town staff).” He said Garrett should have a chance to, “correct deficiencies.”
The council last reviewed Garrett’s performance in the fall, before the new councilors took their positions.
Underwood agreed with Higgins. “It’s kind of like a witch hunt without giving LaRon any direction or which way we want to see improvement or growth,” she said.
Most such discussions take place in executive session, but Garrett requested his performance be discussed in an open meeting, according to a letter to the council sent 24 hours before.
Smith asked that Ferris “elaborate” on what he didn’t like about Garrett’s “leadership style.”
“No, I’m not going to go down every little detail, every little thing. What I witnessed or experienced. No,” said Ferris.
“How about one?” asked Smith.
“No,” said Ferris.
Later in the meeting, Ferris read a prepared statement to explain his motion. “There’s a big picture here — and it’s not about me, or about political gamesmanship, or political power, or who gets the credit, but it’s about what’s best for Payson. Period ... I have listened to many people and I have come to the conclusion, that we need a change in the position of town manger. A positive change will allow Payson to collectively and cooperatively move the ball forward.”
Morrissey said residents he surveyed said, “Garrett’s performance has been negative.”
Tubbs–Avakian said, “I have been involved with the town staff and getting to know everyone in different departments ... one of the big issues that keeps coming across is leadership ... some of the actual departments they have not seen LaRon there since right after he became town manager ... the majority of the employees are fearful (and) uncomfortable to talk to him — and that to me, is an issue.”
For Sterner, it was trust and a lack of communication. “I was not trained on speaking, trained on voting, even though we got things later,” she said. “One of the other concerns that I had is a trust issue — was our April 1st meeting on tax day ... we heard over and over and over that it was going tobe talked about whether we were going to raise taxes or not raise taxes — how much do we raise taxes? And when we got there, what was it? It was, well, let’s have a wish list ... to me, we were not notified, and I did talk to this with LaRon because I was upset. We were not notified.”
The three dissenting council member praised Garrett and criticized the process.
Several said the council majority seemed to have reached a joint conclusion, without any discussion with the minority.
The council has faced this issue before
Smith previously filed a complaint with the state attorney general’s office suggesting the council majority had violated the open meeting law by conferring privately before voting to reject a request to help pay for improved broadband connections. The attorney general has since closed its investigation without action.
The open meeting law requires elected bodies to have discussions in public sessions, with narrow exemptions for items discussed in executive session — like lawsuits and personnel matters. If council members tally votes before a meeting, that potentially violates the law.
The council minority said they were left out of the loop.
Underwood pointed to Garrett’s successes.
“I’m just going to tell you, he has done a lot of the things prior councils asked him to do. The town has not been in better shape in I can’t tell you how many years — as far as being fiscally sound. The town staff, I think is a huge supporter of Mr. Garrett,” she said.
Higgins said the town has no plan going forward. “Since none of us is privy to the plan, I can’t vote to move forward. LaRon was employed with the town for 25 years. I cannot move forward just at the drop of a hat,” he said.
Smith tried to amend Ferris’ motion to fire Garrett. “I would like to make an amendment to the motion, that if the motion passes by a majority, the council will establish criteria whereby the people of the town can decide who the town manager will be,” he said.
Town Attorney Hector Figueroa said, “Sheila (DeSchaaf) is the assistant manager, in his absence, she would step in,” he said.
The council voted 5-2 to approve Smith’s amendment to Ferris’ motion. The council will hold a future work-study to decide on the qualifications they seek in a new town manager.
The council bickered back and forth, revealing the depth of the growing division.
Underwood commented the action “would send a very bad message to our town employees. And I tell you, I look out into this audience — and if I asked everybody to stand that was in support of Mr. Garrett, I think you would have most of the audience standing.” She praised the town’s financial condition under Garrett’s leadership.
Morrissey countered, “In the interest of full disclosure, our economic status right now — you forgot to mention — that we are now doing zero-based budgeting.”
“We have always done that,” replied Smith.
“No, we didn’t. We have not,” said Morrissey.
“Yes, we have ... ask Deborah Barber the next time,” said Smith.
“This budget was wiped clean — and also, the economy has improved,” said Morrissey.
At another point, the council members argued about whether the mayor or the city manager is the CEO of the town.
“And I’ll correct you on that, I’m the town CEO, if you look at the town code,” said Morrissey.
Prompting Higgins to challenge, “That is not correct, Mr. Mayor.”
Morrissey corrected Higgins, “Well, it’s according to the town code. I saw in my own eyes the town code that I am the town’s CEO.”
Figueroa said, “You’re the executive officer — chief officer of the town, under the code. In different places they use different titles, but you are mayor. But, you are just one person on the council. You can’t fire him directly, you need a majority of the council members to do it.”
The mayor dug in, “All I’m saying is, that in the town code, it says the mayor is the CEO — and I can show you a copy of the code — but it’s neither here nor there.”
“Well, we will put Payson in the news again, Smith said.