By Johnnie Belle Reagan
So, Friday March 8th, 2019 the City of Palestine City Council voted unanimously to fire Attorney Ron Stutes and terminate their contract with the Tyler Law firm Potter Minton. Some of you may be like me and saying, “Finally”. Then wondering, “What took so long?” I am basing that thought process off the information that has been reported and available. You may be surprised to know that the decision was not based off of that.
No, Attorney Ron Stutes was fired based on his performance or lack there of in the Lone Star Equipment vs. the City of Palestine lawsuit. The City of Palestine lost with a Jury awarding Lone Star Equipment over $500,000 of the $800,000 they were asking for an unpaid bill. My understanding is that the City was trying to get out of paying for work on a road that Lone Star built in 2015 at the new Sanderson Farms processing plant on off Hwy 79. Lone Star’s claim was that the City understated the work to be done, surveys were grossly off and the City interrupted work that had already been done on the road causing extra cost to Lone Star. The Jury must have partially agreed.
The local paper reported Ron Stutes appearance at the Jury selection and during the trial as disengaged, lackadaisical and even going so far as comparing him to the “walking dead”. When Stutes asked the Jury if anyone was familiar with him, it was reported that a few responded with “only what we have read on Social Media and Facebook and you don’t seem like a stand-up guy”. Who would have guessed? Maybe that had something to do with the outcome or maybe it didn’t. I remember reading that Attorney Jim Hankins was hired to handle the Jury in the Lawnmower Man, Jerry Laza, case because Ron Stutes is not a trial Lawyer. From sources it appears that the Palestine City Council didn’t get a chance to make that decision in the Lone Star Case as they only found out the case was going to trial the day before Jury selection.
The same question appears to apply here as it does in the Jerry Laza case; Who is calling the shots in Palestine Texas? How can one case be filed without a resolution or ordinance giving the City Attorney permission and another case where the City is being sued go on for over two years without the City Council involvement? If this is true and I feel confident it is, then there is a complete break down in the City of Palestine’s governing structure. According to a source long sitting member of the City Council regularly visits City Hall and interacts with City Employees.
Per the Palestine City Charter, it is a Council-City Manager form of government. The City Manger reports directly to the Council and is responsible for the day to day running of City business. Reading on in the Powers and Duties of the City Manager is appears that all other powers or authority have to be delegated through the Council by Resolution or Ordinance. For me, Lawsuits are not common, everyday occurrences and negotiating and initiating lawsuit would not fall into your day to day duties. Also, managing the City Attorney is also not within the City Manager job duties. The City Attorney reports directly to the City Council. One thing that is in the City Manager’s responsibilities is to report to the City Council when and amount has exceeded its budget limit. So, when the Attorney fees for 2017 and 2018 topped out at over $100,000 above budget, that might have been a clue there was a problem. It doesn’t look like the Council knew. So, I’m led to believe the City Manager spent a lot of time doing what he shouldn’t and little time doing what he should.
Now the City finds itself in a quandary. While it was recently reported that the City of Palestine received a bad audit. The Auditor stated the City was making bad decision based on bad data. The cash position being questionable, the City finds itself on the hook for $500,000 for Lone Star and pending uncertain liability in Jerry Laza’s appeal in the Lawnmower Case and Laza’s Civil Rights violation case filed the Tyler Federal Court.
In a phone interview with Mr. Laza I was distressed to hear how the lack of attention to the Case by Palestine City Council has devastated his life. Unlike the Lone Star Case the City Council is well aware that Attorney Ron Stutes was running amuck in the Anderson County District Court. Ron Stutes testified under oath on June 8th 2018 that while he never received permission all the City Council had to do was tell him to stop. They never did. As a matter of record, they barely cared enough to put it on the agenda. Mayor Presley demand at the City Council meeting March 11, 2019 for the City Manager to give monthly update on all litigation came way too late for Laza.
Jerry Laza is still at his Lawnmower shop on Oak Street trying to squeeze out a living and survive. On August 2, 2018 Laza’s only recourse to keep Attorney Ron Stutes, representing the City, from putting him in jail for non-compliance with the injunction issued in February of 2018 and locking him out of his place of business and home, seizing all his property and storing until the Appeal filed in June 2018 was heard, Laza was forced to file Bankruptcy. The Bankruptcy was his only avenue and as a result Laza is now facing lean foreclosures, asset repossessions and possible eviction. All this for a small business man who reported to City Officials in 2016, less than one month before the unauthorized lawsuit was filed, that if they gave him two years, he would clear the property, do something different as he planned to retire.
The City of Palestine is in the process of searching for new representation. Whoever they get will have their hands full sorting out the mess that has been created by the City of Palestine Council lack of leadership. In May the residents will have an opportunity to refresh at least three sets on the City Council. I hope when they vote they keep in mind who has been in the middle of the mismanagement for more that 14 years and remember that one person has done little to change the non-transparent government.
Palestine City Council, while you finally did the right thing on March 11, 2019, you did it 1005 days too late while wasting hundreds of thousands of tax dollars. Ron Stutes should have been fired the minute you knew he filed a lawsuit without authorization. I am left wondering if Jerry Laza prevails, the perfected laws appear to be in his favor (City of Dallas vs. Stewart), how do you every put him back to where he was the day, he asked you for mercy?