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After much deliberation, Presidio City Council votes to fire city administrator among other changes to city positions

Council members said it was a difficult decision to terminate Brad Newton’s contract, and did not provide a reason for the firing — but said it was “due to good cause.” The council also reclassified a newly created position managing city finances, and voted to seek outside legal advice after expressing frustration with the city attorney. | Lea esta nota en español.

By Annie Rosenthal

Monday night’s city council meeting brought a number of changes to top positions in Presidio’s local government, as council members voted unanimously to fire the city administrator, reclassify a newly created city position, and seek outside legal counsel after expressing dissatisfaction with the city attorney.

The motion to fire city administrator Brad Newton came close to 10 p.m., after the council adjourned for a nearly two-hour closed discussion with Newton, the mayor, and city attorney Rod Ponton. 

This was the third council meeting in a row to include a lengthy closed session about the city’s administrator's contract. Council members declined to say what they’d discussed during those sessions, or to give a reason for the firing, saying only that it was “due to good cause” and a breach of Newton's contract.

“These were not easy decisions. I want everybody to understand that,” said council member Arian Velazquez-Ornelas. “Brad’s a valued person in this community. But we’re tasked with having good leadership to guide us as a council. And we feel like at this time, you know, we want to thank him for what he did for this community.”

Newton had officially been city administrator only since July, though he’d served in an interim capacity starting in February 2021. But he had worked for the city in a variety of positions over more than a decade, including as Presidio’s economic development director and executive director of the Presidio Municipal Development District. According to a press release from the city, Newton had an “important role” in several infrastructure projects, including expanding the international bridge and bringing natural gas to the industrial park, and helped oversee the city’s efforts to produce a timely audit “after an eight year lapse.”

Following the vote on Monday, Mayor John Ferguson choked up as he spoke directly to Newton, saying he had opposed the decision to fire him. “All of us in our lives and in our jobs, you know that we make mistakes, and I certainly do myself,” he said. “All I can say is when you summarize your body of work, especially over the past year, you led Presidio out of probably some of the darkest times to where we are and our position to move forward like we should. You were the skipper of the boat during that time, and that’s why I am opposed to you being terminated. It grieves me greatly.”

Several council members also seemed near tears as they thanked Newton for his service. “Brad, I know you have stepped up to the plate various times for previous city administrations. And you did it with all your heart,” said council member Nancy Arevalo.

Newton opted not to share a final city administrator’s report, but had a parting message as he stood to leave the room: “You’ll miss me when I’m gone. Thank you, council. It’s been a pleasure working for Presidio. Hasta la vista.”

In an interview later, council member Velazquez-Ornelas said the council will discuss possible appointments for an interim city administrator at upcoming meetings.

Though council members declined to discuss the specifics of Newton’s alleged breach of contract, another unanimous vote following the closed discussion on Monday night undid one of his actions: the creation of a new salaried position, the city’s Chief Financial Officer. Newton had placed former Presidio EMS director Malynda Richardson in that role full time in early February, Richardson said at the meeting.

On Monday night, the council eliminated the position and replaced it with a role called “financial specialist,” which was also given to Richardson. According to council member Velazquez-Ornelas, “chief financial officer” had been a salaried and supervisory position, while “financial specialist” is hourly and not involved in supervising.

In an interview later, council member John Razo said he could not go into detail about why the change was necessary, saying only that the council wanted to make sure “it was done the right way.”

In a third decision late Monday night, the council voted to seek outside legal advice “regarding future ordinances with the city of Presidio,” citing a lack of guidance from city attorney Rod Ponton. The motion came after a heated discussion earlier in the meeting around a proposed ordinance that would restrict the movement of large quantities of hazardous materials through the city. The council had already approved an initial draft of the ordinance, which is part of an ongoing attempt to prevent a proposal to unload Mexico-bound diesel from railcars and drive it through Presidio.

City council members had spent several weeks refining the language of the ordinance to make sure they didn’t overstep their legal boundaries, and were visibly frustrated when Ponton raised another possible legal issue and proposed new wording on Monday, as the council was preparing to officially approve the text.

Council member Velazquez-Ornelas said she had sent Ponton an email asking for clarification about the legality of the ordinance’s wording on March 31 and had yet to receive a response.

“This council right now feels like, why haven't we had enough guidance from you when it comes to what we send you? Because you send us just a lot of documents. You don't call us or explain something when I've clearly asked for direction and haven't received it,” she said. “At this point, I do not have confidence in Mr. Ponton’s ability to guide us in this matter. And I want to actually try to get a second opinion.”

Velazquez-Ornelas said later that the council’s decision to seek outside legal counsel could extend beyond issues related to hazardous materials and freight transport. But she said they have not officially decided to sever ties with Ponton and hire a new city attorney.

Annie Rosenthal was Marfa Public Radio's Border Reporter, a role she held in partnership with Report for America. She worked at the station from 2021 to 2023.