A convoluted case pitting city officials against city employees is getting more complicated, leaving residents wondering when they’ll get the accountability they deserve.
Two Denton Municipal Electric managers who were put on paid administrative leave while the city investigates contracts they worked on have been fired. The employees have also sued the city, claiming their suspensions were retaliatory.
Mike Grim, executive manager for power legislation and regulatory affairs, and Jim Maynard, energy project development manager, were terminated “effective immediately” on July 11. The city says the firings were due to loss of trust and confidence in the managers.
Grim and Maynard, along with two other DME managers in the Power Supply Administration group, were placed on administrative leave last month as the city investigates how they awarded multimillion-dollar contracts for a new power plant dubbed the Denton Energy Center.
Termination letters sent to Grim and Maynard from deputy city manager Bryan Langley, who’s serving as DME’s interim manager, said that the two were “not candid or forthright” during the course of the investigation and gave “inaccurate and misleading responses” during their interviews on the matter.
A day before their firings, Grim and Maynard filed a lawsuit against the city claiming City Council violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by interviewing them about the Denton Energy Center contracts in closed meetings, even though they asked for open meetings. The two also claim they were put on administrative leave in retaliation for reporting a leak, which the complaint says violates the Texas Whistleblower Act. The city said its actions were unrelated to the lawsuit, which it hadn’t seen at the time of the firings.
That leak to the media in September 2016 of contract information protected by a confidentiality agreement came from council member Keely Briggs. According to their complaint, Grim and Maynard reported the leak to then-city attorney Anita Burgess, but Burgess took no action against Briggs.
Contracts for the controversial $265 million gas-fired power plant project were approved by City Council on September 21, 2016. The current controversy surrounding the investigation of possible irregularities in the city-owned utility’s contracting process is further complicated by the fact that several city employees and council members who supported the Denton Energy Center project have since retired.
Residents and council members have expressed concern that the city was operating for six years, from 2010 until 2016, without an internal auditor. This crucial position would normally assist elected officials in providing proper oversight of financial transactions, on behalf of local taxpayers.
In addition to the ongoing investigation of DME’s contracting process, city manager Todd Hileman has recommended that the city hire outside auditors to review the utility’s energy trading group. That division was started by Phil Williams, who resigned as DME’s general manager after being placed on administrative leave.
The fourth DME employee put on leave, regulatory and risk division manager Bill Bunselmeyer, has been cleared by the city of any wrongdoing.
Mayor Chris Watts says he’s confident the city will “do what’s in the best interest of the community.” That should include a full accounting and disclosure to Denton residents of what is happening at their municipal electric company.
CORRECTION: This article has been corrected to reflect that suspended DME employees filed their lawsuit a day before they were fired, but the city had not been served with the lawsuit at the time of the firings.