In Presidio, concerns over management of PMDD emerge with high-profile resignations
The group charged with economic development for the city of Presidio is working to reset its priorities following the resignations of its top two officials and the return of a former board member.
Jeran Stephens, executive director of the Presidio Municipal Development District (PMDD), and Terry Bishop, president of the district's advisory board, submitted a joint resignation to the city last Friday.
Stephens said the decision was motivated by differences between her and Bishop and others on the group’s board.
“I loved this job, and helping this community in a real and tangible way,” she said. “However, the goals and vision of some of the board members is so contradictory to my goals and vision of what economic development should be and those of the state, and moving forward that it has just become an untenable situation.”
Created by the state legislature a decade ago, the PMDD is a local government organization tasked with using sales tax revenue to grow Presidio’s economy. The organization’s one employee, the executive director, and its volunteer board — made up of a board president and four rank-and-file members — are appointed by the city council.
Stephens was hired to lead the organization in the fall of 2021. She quickly became an advocate for transparency in local government and the city’s most vocal opponent of a controversial plan to bring Mexico-bound diesel through Presidio. Over the following six months, the PMDD funded a series of local infrastructure and quality of life projects — helping the small fire department buy new equipment, supporting the local daycare, and creating a shade structure for a local park.
But in recent months, tensions built within the organization.
In their joint resignation letter, Stephens and Bishop expressed frustrations with the board’s priorities, arguing that investments in new industry and job creation should come before more quality of life improvements like skate parks and gardens.
“Each attempt to bring new jobs to town has been met with resistance and personal judgements [sic] about the type of business or type of work being created,” the letter read. “That is why Presidio has experienced a shrinking population, loss of business and revenue for a decade and will continue to slide into oblivion.”
The letter also alleged corruption within the PMDD and the city government more generally, accusing members of the board of “disregard for ethical behavior” that “makes it impossible to create jobs, growth and substantive quality of life improvements for the community at large.”
Specific accusations included violations of the Open Meetings Act, conflicts of interest, and violations of confidentiality. Bishop and Stephens also alleged “collusion” between board members and the city secretary, and interference with investigations into PMDD’s past transactions.
Allegations of mismanagement go both ways. Former PMDD board secretary Lizette Rohana resigned in the fall over what she called “an abuse of power.” She told city council last Friday she believed that under Stephens’ leadership, the PMDD had ceased to be democratic.
“I feel that to develop an economy in a border area is a very delicate thing. And it can't just be done with a small group of people, or in this case, by the executive director making all of the decisions,” she said.
Rohana had applied to rejoin the board before Bishop and Stephens resigned, telling city council members she hoped to finish her term and was committed to working through conflict. Following the resignations, the council reviewed several applications for the position and voted to reappoint Rohana.
At a PMDD meeting this Wednesday, Rohana and the remaining board members — Patrick Manian, Nancy Arevalo, and Christina Juarez — fielded complaints from members of the public about Stephens’ leadership, including concerns about her use of public funds. (The PMDD had racked up a $108,000 legal bill over the past year, despite having budgeted just $50,000 for lawyers’ fees, according to Arevalo, the board treasurer.)
Board members said they shared the concerns over expenditures, as well as what they saw as Stephens’ lack of consideration for their input. In recent months, they said, discussion items they added to meeting agendas were removed.
“She was often going right around behind our back and making decisions without even addressing the board,” Manian said.
(Stephens, who did not attend the meeting, said that it was within Board President Bishop’s rights to set the agendas for meetings, and that he had removed "negligible items" from a long agenda once. She said she "made day to day decisions as any Director should and would do," and that all expenditures were voted on by the board.)
Manian said he felt the board bears some responsibility for allowing the issues within the PMDD to develop.
“When things were going well in the beginning, you know, we gave [Stephens] a lot of trust, we gave her a lot of room to operate, she did do some good things. And then I don't think I realized how naive I was that things could go a different direction,” he said.
The PMDD's most recent meeting was in November. Board members said they had been trying to schedule a meeting before then, but their efforts were stymied by Stephens, who told them that they had to direct communications about PMDD affairs through her.
(Stephens denied having said communications had to go through her, saying she instead told board members they could not discuss PMDD business amongst themselves because it would violate the Open Meetings Act.)
At the meeting, Mayor John Ferguson told the PMDD board he had only recently become aware of the issues within the organization.
“I have faith in all four of you to do the right thing,” he said. “And I know you've been through a rough patch. I went through, like, a 10 year rough patch, trying to get things right at City Hall. So I know that feeling. It's tough, but I just want to thank you for your service.”
After a lengthy executive session during which the board met with their lawyers — for the first time, they said, since Stephens had largely handled legal communications — the board voted to officially accept Stephens’ and Bishops’ resignations.
The city and PMDD have not yet appointed replacements to fill the board president and executive director positions.
Board members said they plan to nail down the details of PMDD’s past use of public funds, and that they intend to prioritize transparency going forward.
“I think it's just important to be vocal about anything that we feel and see as unethical, because we impact the community as a whole. And we're the responsible people for that,” Rohana said.