by SEAN KIMMONS
Kyle’s newly elected mayor and two new councilmembers flexed their political muscle in their first meeting since taking their oaths of office, voting to push City Manager Tom Mattis off the dais and onto a side table with the rest of the administrative staff. The symbolic move could foreshadow future power struggles between a city manager who has historically been a strong leader, and a new council who may be trying to rein him in.
Mayor Lucy Johnson placed the issue on the agenda, her first sponsored item since winning a special mayoral election last month.
Johnson, who previously served as a Kyle councilmember, said that the should be more proactive, without Mattis on the dais.
Councilmembers Michelle Lopez and Becky Selbera opposed the proposal while the rest of the council, including its newest members Jaime Sanchez and Russ Huebner, approved it.
Councilmembers raised concerns that Mattis, sitting at the center of the dais, would have side conversations with councilmembers and former Mayor Mike Gonzalez, giving citizens the perception that Mattis was running the meetings.
“I believe that there are changes that we can make to better serve the council and the people who attend these meetings,” Johnson said. “We need to, as a council, meet regularly and stand on our own two feet.”
When the new city hall was built in 2006, it made room on the dais for Mattis, who has been the city manager for more than eight years. In other cities such as Buda, the city manager does not sit on the dais and San Marcos has theirs sit at the far end of the dais.
Councilmember David Wilson agreed with Johnson on the move to help the council run “effective” meetings.
“Honestly, when I have a question for the city manager in this particular format I’m straining to look around people,” said Wilson, who sits at the far right end of the dais. “I think it would be a good idea to address this at this time.”
Wilson recalled when the city attorney sat on the dais and found that not to be effective, he said. Now, the city attorney walks up to the podium to address legality questions where the council can see the attorney unobstructed.
“This is not a city manager issue,” Wilson stressed. “It is an effectiveness issue in structure and perception.”
Removing Mattis from the dais would not address the problem and perhaps create irritation with city staff, said Lopez, the mayor pro-tem.
“Yes, there have been perceptions that the city manager is running the meetings. This is not the case,” she said. “The city manager, even when I sat in that seat in place of the mayor, is there to support us.”
“I’m curious to what this sends to the city staff,” she added. “I don’t believe that that is the message we need to send.”
Johnson agreed that Mattis is an asset but countered by saying the questions asked to him should be on public record, not in a side conversation.
“I feel for several reasons it would be best if on this dais we only had members of council and the mayor,” she said.
After the May 8 elections, there will be only two familiar faces left on the council – Selbera and Wilson. This winter, in a political game of musical chairs, former Mayor Gonzales and former councilmember Ray Bryant resigned to seek county-level seats, and Lopez and Johnson then resigned their seats to seek the mayoral spot, leaving them open for Huebner and Sanchez to step into.
Lopez lost to Johnson in last month’s election and will vacate her seat after her replacement is selected in the May 8 race. Meanwhile, long-time councilmember David Salazar did not seek reelection.
Councilmembers have not openly declared a coup against Mattis, though some residents speculate that the incoming officials may have the five votes they need to fire the city manager, at the severance cost of nine months of his $179,000 annual salary.
In 2002, Mattis came into a troubled city that had permitted more growth than it had the water to provide, pushing the council to impose a building moratorium while the city tried to get infrastructure under control. City managers are frequently lighting rods for controversy, and Mattis’s strong personality gained him both supporters and enemies over the next eight years – an exceptionally long term of service in a position that typically has quick turnover.
Mattis may be working on a backup plan. He applied for an open city manager position in Harlingen, Texas, according to Harlingen city officials, who didn’t say when they plan to select a candidate. Mattis declined comment on this matter.
On Monday, Mattis issued a statement regarding the council’s move.
“This issue as discussed has nothing to do with the business of the City,” he said. “Political/policy issues are the exclusive purview of the City Council. As has always been the case, we will comply with all decisions made by the City Council.”