ALPINE – At an Alpine City Council meeting Tuesday night, officials considered new candidates for the city attorney position to replace Rod Ponton, who was fired by the city last year. Three candidates have stepped up, including former District Attorney Sandy Wilson.
The Council also offered more context on Ponton’s firing, which occurred in November after executive session meetings on the issue. Tensions had been simmering between the city and its attorney all year, especially since supporters from both the Alpine Police Department and the Brewster County Sheriff’s Office accused each other of misconduct.
The details of that dispute are complicated, as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported. But the Alpine City Council was particularly upset with one thread in that controversy: In public documents, including a letter to city officials, Ponton had accused the Alpine Police Department of a “repeated pattern of police misconduct,” including the arrest of persons without cause.
The council asked Ponton to provide proof of his claims, and at a city council meeting in November, Ponton made a short presentation. He said Brewster County prosecutors had declined more than 43% of APD cases due to probable cause issues, indicating that the police department was “performing worse than other agencies” such as the County Sheriff’s Office. Brewster and the Texas Department of Public Safety. He said his claims were “supported by the data” and recommended “that there be more training” for APD on case preparation and legal issues.
The council was not impressed. Councilman Rick Stephens asked if Ponton had asked Brewster County Attorney Steve Houston to attend a city meeting, so city officials could hear his opinion on these concerns. Ponton said no.
“Why haven’t you done that?” Stephens said. “You were asked to do that at the last meeting.”
“Steve Houston is an elected public official,” Ponton responded. “I think you can do whatever you want in your office.”
Meanwhile, other city officials were concerned that Ponton still did not provide adequate evidence for his claims. “It’s a nice pie chart,” said City Manager Erik Zimmer of a graph that shows why APD cases were dismissed, “but there is no data.”
After multiple requests for records with APD and county offices, including a request for records with the Brewster County prosecutor’s office on dismissed APD cases, the Big Bend Sentinel has so far found no concrete evidence of widespread misconduct in APD. On the one hand, Ponton’s submission, if accurate, shows that APD cases were dismissed at a much higher rate than other agency cases.
On the other hand, dismissed cases do not necessarily indicate probable cause misconduct or violations, especially in light of the dispute between city and county officials. Chris Rodriguez, a member of the Alpine city council and a former employee of the district attorney’s office, instead argued that county prosecutors were not doing enough to make sure APD cases were ready for court.
At the same November meeting, Councilmember Maria Curry made a motion to terminate Ponton’s contract “effective immediately.” There was a “significant lack of trust” between Ponton and other city officials, he said. The council voted 4-1 to fire Ponton, and Councilman Martin Sandate voted against.
For some council members, Ponton’s presentation seemed to confirm their worst suspicions. As Stephens said at last week’s meeting, “there seemed to be a conflict of interest.”
Ponton wanted to “rationalize why APD was wrong in what they were doing rather than help the city understand what their risks were,” he said. “In my opinion, it created a greater risk for the city.”
Another problem related to Ponton’s billing practices. When the city reviewed Ponton’s final bill at last week’s meeting, they questioned some of the charges on his bill.
“What was Rod working on?” Stephens said about a charge related to the investigation into the eligibility of the candidates, which apparently was made for Mayor Andy Ramos. “Mayor, did you ask Rod to come work on that?”
Ramos said no. But sometimes, he said, he would ask Ponton a question and then be accused of investigating.
“Just discussing it doesn’t mean, ‘Hey, that automatically gives you the right to go do all this research,'” Ramos said.
Contacted for comment Wednesday, Ponton maintained there were problems at APD and that it was just doing its job.
“I was trying to reduce the risk to the city by exposing the Alpine Police Department arrests without probable cause so that the Alpine Police Department could reform itself and make sure that citizens’ rights were not violated,” he said. “He wanted to improve his performance.”
When asked about concerns about his bills, Ponton again argued that he was doing his due diligence.
“I don’t want to give an impromptu response to something,” he said. “I want to make sure that I am correct in the advice that I give to my client.”
Still, Ponton and the city council seem to agree on one thing: the relationship wasn’t working.
“It made my life better,” Ponton said of the city council’s decision to fire him. He had not met “face to face” with other city officials, particularly Stephens, he said.
At last week’s council meeting, city leaders also briefly discussed the three candidates who have applied to replace Ponton in office. While city officials are still deciding who they will hire, those discussions provided a window into their thoughts.
First is former District Attorney Sandy Wilson, who lost her candidacy in the Republican primary last year to Ori White, a Fort Stockton-based attorney. (White was sworn in on Monday.) Wilson, a Marathon resident, has long-standing ties to the area. But Mayor Ramos, while noting that Wilson had a background in criminal law and nursing, said the city attorney would primarily deal with city contracts. That’s “a little different than what she was used to,” he said.
Next was Denise Frederick, who at the meeting told the council that she had “a lot of experience in the city.” Frederick was an assistant city attorney in San Antonio for more than 20 years, from 1995 to 2016, according to his online resume. Later, she also worked for about three years as a city attorney for the Leon Valley suburb of San Antonio.
Frederick said he had “handled every aspect of city government,” from zoning to prosecuting misdemeanors. But Frederick acknowledged that he had no trial experience, which means Alpine would likely have to outsource and pay for those tasks.
“I don’t want to give them the impression that he’s in my wheelhouse when he’s not,” Frederick said at the meeting. “I’m just being honest with you.”
Finally, there is Greg Wortham, the former mayor of Sweetwater. Upon taking office in 2007, Wortham left office in 2014 to run as a Democratic candidate in a special election in the 28th Texas State Senate District. He lost that candidacy to a Republican.
Wortham, who was also present, said little at the meeting. But based on his online resume, he has experience in the oil and gas and wind industries.
Beginning in 2004, Wortham led the Texas Wind Energy Clearinghouse, a group that served as a resource and “information exchange” for the wind industry, according to his Facebook page. (The group’s website is no longer active and its Facebook page hasn’t posted since 2017). The Sierra Club, a US environmental group, wrote a glowing profile of Wortham in 2014, describing him as “the mayor of the wind.” Later, beginning in 2013, Wortham also led the Cline Shale Alliance, a “private group founded to prepare the region [de Sweetwater] for oil workers, ”according to The Austin American-Statesman.
After brief comments from some of the candidates, the council voted to postpone the vote to replace Ponton to give them time to discuss and learn more, so no hiring decision was made Tuesday night.