By Johnnie Belle Reagan
Is the Palestine City Council its own worst enemy by continuing to stand by the policy of letting the experts do their job? Are they being led astray because they trust what they are told by paid contractors or employees? If they blindly follow the advice and do not take the time or effort to research or ask the right questions, are they serving the best interest of the people they represent?
Let us go back to the beginning of research into the current lawsuit the City of Palestine filed against a local business owner Jerry Laza. At the time the suit was filed it is understood that the City of Palestine was entertaining a search for a new City Lawyer. Concerns of conflicts of interest had been brought up because the current firm, Potter Minton Attorney Ron Stutes, also represented the Texas State Rail Road and other companies that the City had contracts and business that would need consultation from Mr. Stutes. When asked what would be the proper protocol for those instances where a conflict would occur it was recorded in City Council meeting discussions that Attorney Stutes would recuse himself. At some point the concern that these instances would cause the City unneeded additional cost due to the fact that another lawyer would have to be brought up to speed on information and work that Mr. Stutes was already familiar, just creating additional costs, time and money.
A clear example of this conflict arose during the Palestine City Council meeting May 10, 2016. Ron Stutes, yes, Ron Stutes placed on the agenda a request to hear dismissal of liens held by the City of Palestine for demolition and cleanup on property owned by Texas Area Fund Foundation, a local non-profit. On the recording of the meeting located on the City website you can clearly hear Ron Stutes arguing the facts that the City should forgive the lien. Conflict? He isn’t representing the best interests of the Palestine City tax payer. Also, out of context is the fact that absolutely no amount of money is ever mentioned, nor does the City Council ever inquire as to the amount. What happens; they all unanimously vote to forgive the debt. While this is not an uncommon occurrence for how business is done. It is disturbing to think that we paid Ron Stutes to do work for TAFF when they have their own attorney, Jackson Hanks. Why wasn’t Mr. Hanks representing TAFF and why wasn’t Ron Stutes doing what we pay him to do and representing the interest of the tax payer? It doesn’t benefit you or I for our now broke City to be giving away a reported $12,000 or more in free labor. How many times has this happened and how much has it really cost? In 2017 it was reported that TAFF had been receiving months and months of free water for the Railroad Memorial Park. But, that is another story.
What better way to insure yourself a continued stint on the payroll of the City of Palestine but to file a lawsuit that would guarantee months of litigation? So, exactly at the same time talks, bids and negotiations to find new representation the City finds itself the party in a lawsuit. It is a proven fact through testimony in both sworn depositions and court proceedings that the City Council had no prior knowledge of the lawsuit authorized by City Manager Mike Alexander and filed by Ron Stutes in the name of the City of Palestine. The Council was made aware of the suit filed in District Court on June 9th, 2016 by an email sent to all the City Council Members from the Defendant in the lawsuit Jerry Laza on June 24, 2016, 15 days after the suit was filed. In front of the Judge during pre-trial hearings Ron Stutes argued that the “State of Texas” gave him a right to file suit, and presented a sworn affidavit signed by Mike Alexander approving the Suit. Like always, that was accepted by the Judge, when the defense was asking for the proper documentation an Ordinance or Resolution. In post Judgment hearings Stutes on the stand under oath testified that maybe Larry Pannell, a past Finance Director, fired 2 days before the Laza Suit was filed, had given him permission. Then when pressed, testified that no one had given him authorization but, that no one had told him to stop. Stop what? Writing himself check out of the general fund? He is a contractor. No one signs off on his payment or work?
Let us introduce Mr. Ronald Stutes member of Potter Minton Law Firm Tyler, Texas, appointed City Attorney for the City of Palestine. Per Mr. Stutes’ Linkedin profile he has made a career of municipal law. He has been with Potter Minton for 14 years and represented the City of Palestine in the Municipal ordinance violation case with Mr. Laza in 2006, which was ruled in Laza’s favor. That has put him in Palestine for at least 12 years. Before that Mr. Stutes was the Assistant City Attorney for the City of Dallas going back to 1993, giving Mr. Stutes a total of 24 years of Municipal Law experience. With that kind of experience and back ground you couldn’t be blamed for thinking or believing Mr. Ron Stutes is an expert in Municipal Law.
In an effort to find out more about Mr. Stutes colleagues from his days of Assistant Attorney for the City of Dallas were contacted. They clearly remembered that in the early 1990’s there was upheaval in the City of Dallas, members of Dallas City Council and high ranking City Employees over a price fixing in City’s towing contracts. They wouldn’t go on the record and say that Stutes was involved but remembered it coincided with his departure. One thing I do know for sure if you ever imagined how the good ol’ boys club works? Lawyers don’t go after other Lawyers. Very rarely do they lose their license to practice Law and much like the Judges when they do something wrong unless completely caught with their pants down and crack pipe including video and pictures, they receive little more than a slap on the hand. The Texas State Bar is not holding them accountable so, it is a free for all.
This brings me to the point. An Attorney being paid good money should be expected to give his client the best legal advice taken into account his experience, knowledge and research expertise. How was a Law Suit filed under a Texas Local Government Code that had not been adopted into the Palestine City Charter? How did the City Manager come to file a law suit that was not within his authority to file? How come the City wasn’t advised when they allegedly violated the Texas Open Meeting Act voting to continue the unauthorized Law Suit in closed session (the City Attorney attends every City Council meeting and closed session)? Why did the City Manager once again overstep his authority and hire an additional Attorney, James Hankins, to represent the case? Hankins worked on the case and was paid for a month before the City officially hired him in a special meeting on August 18, 2017. Why didn’t Mr. Stutes advise the two new 2017 City Council members to abstain from voting which would have protected them from be included in the Lawsuit? And last but not least why did Mr. Stutes insinuate in argument before the Judge, Dwight Phifer, that he had the authority to file the suit when clearly the City Charter states otherwise? That decision would be the City Council’s call.
According to the facts above it would lead you to think that just maybe the City of Palestine is not getting the best legal advice. It would lead you to believe that the possibility might arise that Mr. Ron Stutes is looking out for his own best interest and liability of the Law Firm he represents, Potter Minton, rather than the best interest of the City of Palestine, the City Council or the Tax Payer that facilitates the paying of Mr. Stutes bills. Maybe the loss to Laza in 2006 and the mention that he had never represented a winning case for Palestine was too much? And I shudder to even think that the misguidance that was given to the former City Manager and the City Council could even be construed as a job guarantee with the hopes that “some” would be too stupid to figure out the ruse. Or even this; Mr. Laza would not have the means to defend an unjustified lawsuit and see it thru to Supreme Court, if need be. Surely, the City was not betting on out spending rather than following the law or doing the right thing.
Do you really believe with 24 plus years of Municipal Law experience and working for the City of Dallas that Mr. Ron Stutes does not know the limitation of the power of a Home-Rule City Charter, how to read a City Charter, the protocol for City Council closed sessions or the legal ramification of an unauthorized Lawsuit? Close attention needed to be paid to the former City Manager Mike Alexander’s buyout contract, after all Stutes is the advisor in all things legal for the City of Palestine, TX. So, why would he allow the City to enter a contract that requires a payment of $100,000.00 even when the employee is asking to be let go?
Maybe his over zealousness to prosecute the Laza case without any limitation including lying under oath is due to the fact he made a vital mistake in thinking that the misstep of filing a lawsuit for a client that hadn’t hired him would not be figured out. Now, it could be presumed he is desperate to protect Potter Minton’s reputation of “providing professional service of the highest standard”.
Hey, it’s not his money and Mr. Stutes is getting paid no matter the outcome. And it seems to me that if you need dirty deeds done, but NOT dirt cheap, You “Better Call Stutes” RON STUTES, ATTORNEY AT LAW.