Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Controversy at Argyle Town Hall reaches fever pitch, council declares no confidence in mayor

In a special Argyle Town Council meeting on Monday night, the town administrator and mayor accused each other of unprofessional behavior, and council members officially declared they have no confidence in the mayor.

On June 2, 2022, Argyle council members said they were called to Town Hall by a distraught staff member after an incident involving Mayor Bryan Livingston. Two staff members resigned within a couple days of the incident. The Town Council called for an investigation into the incident, which ended up costing the town over $26,000 plus $5,000 for a settlement paid to the former town secretary, Livingston said. The investigation was completed in December, and it was kept confidential due to attorney-client privilege. The council declined to bring the possibility of making the report public up for a vote.

In a January 2023 council meeting, Livingston started reading a statement claiming the investigation exonerated him of any wrongdoing. Council members interrupted him because the subject wasn’t on the meeting agenda, but Livingston read it anyway. On Thursday evening, Livingston released the full report on his public Facebook page. A town attorney said she had advised Livingston against releasing the report, which was labeled confidential.

“I have no choice but to release the report under my authority as the chief executive officer of the town so that citizens will know the truth and that questions about why I was not charged by the police will be put to rest,” Livingston said in the Facebook post.

Livingston said in an interview that he “can’t find proof that anyone was told the report would remain confidential, just the witness statements,” which were not released.

“The attorney-client privilege belongs to the council as a whole, but any member can waive that privilege,” Livingston said. “Other members may not like that, but the privilege belongs to the town and as mayor I determined that the investigation was a public document and that its release was mandated by the motion on July 25, 2022 that started the investigation.”

In the report, independent investigators wrote that they found Livingston believed Laura Calcote, Argyle’s town secretary and assistant town administrator for a short time, was “‘in league’ with his political opponents on the Council and working with them to undermine his position.” Livingston’s perception about Calcote, investigators said, “does not appear to be directly supported by the evidence,” though Calcote had also been placed in uncomfortable positions by the mayor’s opponents and she had reached out to them sometimes, apparently to seek their support. She also said that “some want to use her to get at the Mayor, and she opined there was a bad situation at the Town for all staff.”

Multiple witnesses told investigators that the mayor yelled at Calcote and another employee on multiple occasions, something Livingston denies. Investigators believe that “it is more likely than not that the Mayor did ‘yell’ at staff” on multiple occasions. His actions, however, did not meet the legal definition for a toxic work environment, they said.

The report reveals that the June 2 incident was a verbal conflict between Livingston and Calcote, after Livingston called Calcote insubordinate because she did “not completely or correctly transmit the pertinent Town Ordinance as to the Mayor’s authority.” Calcote had sent an email to staff and council about the mayor’s role as acting town administrator, but she didn’t include the relevant town ordinance that requires the mayor to fulfill those duties when the position is vacated.

“I was set up on June 2,” Livingston said. “That was a deliberate provocation.”

Livingston said he confronted Calcote about the email and said she was being insubordinate. Calcote then called some council members and said she locked herself in her office, but investigators said the door was merely closed, and it does not appear she barricaded herself inside. A councilman called the police, and Calcote, who had been crying, told Chief Emmitt Jackson that she was OK and did not feel herself to be in any danger, the report said.

Two days later, Livingston tried to get into Town Hall to check for flood damage before his “Mornings with the Mayor” event, but his access key card didn’t work. He emailed Calcote, accusing her of having something to do with him being locked out, the report says. In her reply, Calcote resigned immediately, saying she “can no longer work for an organization where hostility is present on a regular basis, especially when directed towards me.” Livingston then accused her of being the one creating a hostile work environment. The mayor’s assumption about Calcote “does not appear to be supported by the evidence,” the report found.

The report also said that no evidence was found to suggest that the mayor’s actions were “gender-based or otherwise discriminatory in nature.” Investigators believe Livingston “should keep his temper in check, especially with staff,” and it is clear that he “feels that he is always on the defensive” because of conflict with certain council members.

“This defensiveness appears to, on occasion, lead to assumptions and perceptions that may or may not be accurate,” the report said. “It quickly became apparent from comments of all witnesses that the Mayor was part of, and a product of, a larger issue.”

For years, there has been significant infighting among Argyle’s elected officials and substantial turnover among Argyle town staff members, especially among town administrators. The report says Argyle Town Hall has a “poor work environment” because of how the mayor and council members interact with each other and with town staff.

“While we did not seek out these reactions, multiple current and former employees interviewed were very consistent in characterizing the Council as a whole in creating a poor work environment, and have characterized the ongoing conflict between Councilmembers and Mayor as ‘completely juvenile,’ ’embarrassing’ and ‘very unprofessional,'” the report said. “Witnesses also volunteered incidents where other Councilmembers have treated staff poorly and … got too involved in the staff’s day-to-day job duties and attempted to use staff for their own political ends.”

Livingston said he released the report, “not to be self-serving,” but because he “wanted to make sure the Argyle Police Department was no longer in question.” There had been questions about why APD didn’t file a police report about the incident, and “the public is entitled to the truth and the police department is entitled to no longer be under a cloud.”

On Thursday afternoon, the town posted on its website an agenda for a special council meeting, scheduled for Monday evening, to discuss current Town Administrator Erika McComis’ request to work from home and to discuss personnel matters between McComis and Livingston. A couple hours later, Livingston released the confidential report. The next morning, the agenda was amended, adding items for council to discuss Livingston’s release of confidential information and to consider a resolution declaring no confidence in his ability to represent the town.

McComis and Livingston elected to discuss the personnel matters in open session during Monday’s meeting.

McComis described an April 19 meeting in which she said Livingston yelled at her and treated her unprofessionally. In response, Livingston said he has never spoken to McComis “in anything but a professional tone,” but he said she’s been rude and disrespectful to him. Livingston accused McComis of a “serious ethical breach” because her accusations, all of which he says are false, may affect next week’s election; Livingston is running against councilman Ron Schmidt for Place 2 on council.

“I am very disturbed that you chose a public forum to commit an act like you just did,” Livingston said to McComis.

McComis requested that Livingston call ahead before coming to Town Hall during her normal work hours until after the election is canvassed in May. Livingston declined to do so, so McComis asked council to allow her to work from home until after the election is canvassed. Several council members commended McComis, approved her work-from-home request and extended her contract through September 2025.

Councilwoman Cyndi Hermann and Livingston engaged in a back-and-forth over his release of the report.

“It was not a public document until you released it, and your conduct on June 2 and your exact same conduct and pattern of behavior on April 19 is the exact reason why we’re sitting here today,” said Hermann, whose term expires in two weeks. “If I was still sitting up here and all of this was going on, I would ask for a second, third and fourth investigation because where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

“What are the consequences of the release of that information?” Livingston asked her.

“The people who participated in the investigation were told that it was going to be kept confidential,” she answered. “We’ve completely gone back on that. We might as well have had an open hearing right here in public, and drug them all out like a dog and pony show.”

“There is only one person who is exposed in that report, and that person was already exposed in that report based on the proceedings in this chamber, and that was Laura Calcote,” Livingston said. “Laura Calcote’s behavior on June 2 is why we’re sitting here.”

“Oh my gosh!” Hermann responded. “This is the biggest incidence of victim-blaming that I have ever seen in my entire life.”

After an executive session, some council members talked about how they used to support Livingston, and they never foresaw how his tenure as mayor would end.

“I’m surprised and sad that this is where we are today,” said Hermann, who in 2019 had recommended Livingston be appointed to council. “I considered him a friend. We campaigned together. I felt like we were moving this town in the right direction as a council.

“I no longer recognize (him). I don’t understand what has happened.”

Only councilwoman Sherri Myers spoke favorably of Livingston before Schmidt, Rick Bradford, Hermann and Gordon Baethge voted to approve the vote of no confidence in Livingston’s ability to represent the town. Myers voted against, and the resolution passed. With only a couple weeks left in Livingston’s mayoral term, the move is nothing more than symbolic.

“While there may not be true lasting repercussions, I feel like it’s important,” Hermann said.

Since the meeting, Livingston released the following, which has been edited for brevity:

“Erika McComis and I enjoyed a cordial and professional relationship from the time that she stepped into the role of town administrator last year and during her earlier period of service, when she served the town after my appointment in 2019. I have always treated Erika with respect and admired her skills and work ethic. At no time in the years that we have worked together has she complained about our interactions or suggested that I have behaved inappropriately. Imagine my surprise when I heard of this complaint. Ms. Melissa Cranford, the HR specialist working for the contract law firm that serves the town, stated during the special meeting on May 24th that no complaints have been received by the town’s attorney from Ms. McComis about my interactions with her.

“Within hours of my conversation with Ms. McComis on Wednesday, April 19th, she sent me a complaint message and later advised me that she was calling a special meeting. Rather than following professional practice and reporting a HR matter to the town attorney or other authority for investigation, the town administrator decided to hold a public show trial of Ron Schmidt’s election opponent on live streamed video at taxpayer expense on the first day of early voting. The complaints and charges made during the special meeting by Ms. McComis and the council members at the meeting were completely false and staged to accomplish a political end. This is disappointing behavior on the part of everyone who promoted and participated in the shameful no confidence vote.

“The report on the June 2nd, 2022 incident does in fact exonerate me of the charges that Ms. McComis made in writing and at the special meeting earlier this week, including creating a hostile work environment and gender discrimination. Her statement relied in large part on these two debunked claims.”

CTG Staff
CTG Staff
The Cross Timbers Gazette News Department

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