Two city employees have been fired in the wake of an investigation into possible contracting irregularities at Denton Municipal Electric.
Mike Grim, the executive manager for power legislation and regulatory affairs, and Jim Maynard, energy project development manager, were fired Tuesday, about three weeks after they were placed on administrative leave.
In addition, Grim and Maynard filed a lawsuit against the city Monday, claiming that city government leaders violated the Texas Open Meetings Act and the Texas Whistleblower Act in the course of the investigation.
Robert Goodman, a Dallas attorney who specializes in employment law, filed the lawsuit in a Dallas County district court on behalf of the former DME employees. He said Grim and Maynard were not sure they could get a fair trial in Denton County.
“Not with the politics as they appear to be,” Goodman said.
The city has not been served with the lawsuit as of Thursday, according to City Manager Todd Hileman. He said the lawsuit has no merit, adding that “the employees were terminated for reasons unrelated to the lawsuit.”
Both men had breached their supervisor’s trust, which led to their firing, according to their termination letters, which the Denton Record-Chronicle obtained through an open records request.
Maynard failed to cooperate and be truthful in the contract investigation, according to his termination letter.
“You provided inaccurate and misleading answers during your interview,” wrote Bryan Langley, the deputy city manager and interim manager of DME.
Grim “was not candid and forthright" during his interview, a quality necessary for a high-level manager, Langley wrote.
Grim’s and Maynard’s lawsuit against the city offered an additional glimpse into what happened during those interviews. Court documents included the surprise revelation that Fort Worth attorney Julia Gannaway, who specializes in directing investigations of workplace misconduct, is assisting city leaders in examining DME’s contracting practices in connection with the Denton Energy Center construction project underway near the city airport.
The Denton Energy Center is planned as a $265 million natural gas power plant that critics say maintains the city's commitment to fossil fuels rather than renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.
In the court pleadings, Grim claimed he was questioned for four hours on June 30 by Langley and Gannaway. They recorded the conversation without Grim's consent, according to the lawsuit. Maynard claimed that he was questioned for about two-and-a-half hours on June 28. He also claimed the meeting was also recorded without his consent.
Both men said they submitted to the questions out of fear that they would immediately lose their jobs if they did not cooperate, according to their lawsuit.
Two other DME employees were placed on administrative leave at the same time as Grim and Maynard. Phil Williams, DME's general manager, resigned a week ago. The fourth employee, Bill Bunselmeyer, who serves as DME’s regulatory and risk division manager, has been cleared of any wrongdoing.
“We expect him to be back to work on Monday,” Hileman said.
In their lawsuit, Grim and Maynard claimed that the city violated the state’s open meetings laws on June 30, when the city managers and attorneys held a closed-door meeting with the City Council after Grim asked them not to.
If the City Council discussed Grim’s employment in that meeting, state law allows him to request that the meeting be open, according to the lawsuit. In the court pleading, Grim states that he believed the meeting was related to his employment. He delivered a written request to a long list of city officials prior to the June 30 meeting asking that it be postponed. He asked that the meeting be rescheduled and posted as an open meeting, according to court records.
However, the closed-door meeting was held as scheduled.
In addition, Grim and Maynard also claimed that they were placed on administrative leave in retaliation for reporting a leak to the press, according to their court pleadings. In September, council member Keely Briggs released a set of emails to the Record-Chronicle, calling for a delay in awarding the Denton Energy Center contracts until the project could be scrutinized more thoroughly.
In the court pleadings, Grim and Maynard said they sent “screen shots” to former City Attorney Anita Burgess to show that, in releasing the emails, Briggs violated confidentiality agreements DME had with the two companies building the power plant, Burns & McDonnell and Wärtsilä.
Grim and Maynard claimed they were placed on leave as retaliation, a violation of the Texas Whistleblower Act.
Burgess, who has since retired, took no action against Briggs, according to court records.
Briggs did not return a call for comment.
Grim and Maynard claimed that several city council members and other city employees who supported the power plant project have since left the city, including Burgess, former assistant city manager Howard Martin and former purchasing director Elton Brock.
The lawsuit does not mention former City Manager George Campbell, who shepherded the power plant project through key milestones in 2015 and 2016, essentially securing the eventual approval of the controversial project from the city council before he was dismissed one year ago.
Dalton Gregory is the only remaining council member who voted in favor of the contracts. Kathleen Wazny declined to seek a second term, sold her home and moved to Austin. Joey Hawkins declined to seek a third term. Kevin Roden reached his term limit and could not run again last spring.
Mayor Chris Watts was confident, saying that as long as he has served on city council, he’s trusted the process.
“We’ve dealt with some pretty difficult issues in the past and this is no different. We’ll move through it and do what’s in the best interest of the community,” Watts said. “I feel very confident that no matter what we have to look at, and what we have to do, we’ll come out OK in the end.”
Roden, who still comments on city business, appeared less optimistic about the latest skirmish in the contract investigation.
"This is going to get ugly real fast," he wrote on Facebook.
Court records show that Grim and Maynard seek damages in excess of $200,000, but less than $1 million.
Before being fired, Grim’s base salary was about $188,000 annually and Maynard’s was about $102,000. Grim came to the city in 2008 from TXU. Maynard was hired in 2006.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881.