City Manager Kent Cagle terminated by Leander Council

Cagle alleges Mayor threatened firing from first day in office; Economic Development Director resigns

HCN File/Kayla Bouchard

Leander City Manager Kent Cagle was terminated “with cause” from his position Monday in a 6-to-1 vote by the Leander City Council. It was a sudden turn of events, as the council announced a special called meeting to deal with Cagle’s employment just hours after three newly-elected council members were sworn in last week. 

After deliberating in executive session for nearly two and a half hours Monday morning, the council returned to the dais to terminate Cagle’s employment and name former Terrell City Manager Gordon Pierce as the city’s interim city manager. 

Council member Michelle Stephenson, who was the only vote against terminating Cagle’s employment, said after the meeting that she believed the ‘cause’ Mayor Troy Hill used in justifying Cagles termination was inadequate. 

“I really didn’t get to speak,” Stephenson said. “He kept telling me to wait, or to just be quiet,” she said, noting that she never got what she believed to be a full or fair justification for terminating Cagle, who was city manager for more than seven years and just received a 3% pay increase based on performance in November.  

That raise passed with a 5-2 vote of the council, with Hill and Council Member Marci Cannon voting against.

Monday’s special meeting was an early test for the three new council members, Kathryn Pantalion-Parker, Jason Shaw, and newly-named Mayor Pro Tem Chris Czernek. Those three have no prior experience in elective office and had attended their first council meeting just four days before Monday’s special session. Their only interaction with Cagle on the dais or involving city business was at that first council meeting where they were sworn in.

The long deliberations nearly forced a postponement, as Pat Bryson Municipal Hall was just minutes from being converted to a municipal courtroom when the council returned to open session to vote on Cagle’s firing.

Leander Mayor Troy Hill called the motion to terminate Cagle “with cause,” which was seconded by new Council member Chris Czernek. Hill did not provide further details about what “with cause” means in terms of Cagle’s contract. 

The decision to terminate Cagle with cause could potentially cost the city thousands of dollars under a severance clause in his employment contract. The Leander City Manager serves at the discretion of the council, but a clause in Cagle’s contract stipulates that if he is terminated, he is entitled to a lump sum cash payment of one year’s salary — Cagle’s base pay is $209,673.10 — plus his benefits from the last 12 months. 

The contract only allows Cagle’s severance to be voided if he is convicted of a felony or an illegal act involving him acting for his personal gain.

In an exclusive interview with Hill Country News several days prior to Monday’s vote, Cagle accused Mayor Troy Hill — who brought the agenda item — of targeting Cagle for termination from the first days Hill was in office after winning the May 2018 mayoral race

Cagle also accused Hill of offering a quid pro quo last year, saying Cagle could avoid being fired if he would instead fire former Assistant City Manager Tom Yantis over his alleged political views.

When asked about Cagle’s allegations after Monday’s council meeting, Hill replied, “No comment.” However, Hill subsequently responded to emailed questions, categorically denying the allegations. Hill did confirm he met with Cagle on the dates Cagle alleges, though Hill said those meetings had nothing to do with Yantis’ departure. 

Calls seeking comment from Yantis, who now works as an assistant city manager in Taylor, were not returned by Monday afternoon.

Termination and Replacement

Cagle said he was not allowed into the meeting where his employment was being discussed and instead waited in an open city office the entire time. After the meeting, Cagle said he was never presented with any allegations against himself nor any explanations for the termination. 

Hill did not provide specifics about why he had brought the termination before the council. 

“As for his dismissal, it was time for a new direction. Voters agreed overwhelmingly in two elections. We wish (Kent Cagle) well in his future endeavors,” Hill said in an emailed response. 

In a formal release Monday afternoon, the city quoted Hill as saying, "As we begin the process of finding our next city manager, I want to assure Leander residents and businesses that our government is still operating and that our community will move forward."

In responding to a question about the timeline, Hill only stated that the 10 a.m. Monday meeting was the earliest available time to conduct the deliberations on terminating Cagle, to be in compliance with the state’s open meetings law which require posting a meeting notice at least 72 hours in advance. Hill said without that notice requirement, he would have acted sooner. 

Czernek replied by email late Monday, echoing Hill's response, saying "The citizens of Leander... wanted to go in a different direction," and Czernek thanked Cagle for his years of leadership. He declined to provide further explanation for his vote, saying he was refusing to comment further out of respect for Cagle.

Czernek said he did not have an opinion about the timing of the meeting to take action on Cagle's employment. 

Other sitting council members have not replied to emails or phone calls seeking comment about the reasons for Cagle’s termination or the timing of the action.

Cagle said he expects the city to honor his severance agreement and that the term “with cause” was confusing and meaningless because no part of his contract provides the term as a criteria or cause for denying him severance pay.

Cagle declined to comment further on the termination.

“It’s over and there’s nothing more for me to say,” Cagle said. “It’s their prerogative and I wish everybody well.”

After voting on Cagle’s termination, the Council voted unanimously to appoint Gordon Pierce as interim city manager. The council did not immediately provide details about Pierce, though a member of the city staff confirmed that Pierce is the same individual who served as city manager in the Dallas suburb of Terrell more than a decade ago. 

One council member, who asked not to be named in the story for fear of retribution, said the deliberations felt rushed due to the pending municipal court session, and no details were provided about Pierce other than Hill told the council in executive session that Pierce was recommended by Williamson County Commissioner Cynthia Long. 

Long confirmed to the Hill Country News that she suggested Pierce to Hill as an option and provided Pierce's contact information. Long said she considered Pierce a friend and praised his experience and ability.  

"Gordon has excellent references and is an amazing public servant who will do a fantastic job on an interim basis for the City of Leander," Long said.

Stephenson, who voted in favor of the motion to hire Pierce as interim city manager despite not having information about him, said his name was raised as a compromise replacement candidate during the closed session debate.

Czernek said he had read through Pierce's resume and qualifications prior to casting the vote and felt Pierce had experience in similar situations that would serve Leander well.

According to a Dallas Morning News report from 2007, Pierce resigned his position as Terrell’s city manager that year — some 15 months after being arrested by a state trooper and charged with drunken driving while operating a city-owned vehicle. A videotape of Pierce’s arrest was made public just two weeks before Pierce agreed to retire, saving that city tens of thousands of dollars that would have been paid under his contract, should his employment have ended by either resignation or termination. 

After the Meeting

Shortly after Monday’s council meeting concluded, Stephenson was talking with attendees while a quorum of council members gathered beside the dais talking with City Attorney Paige Sainz and Police Chief Greg Minton. As reporters approached to inquire about their discussion, the group immediately exited the building together without providing comment about their discussions. 

Approximately half of the small crowd attending the meeting said they had turned out to support Cagle, including ten individuals who wore red as a show of support for the embattled city manager.

Among those in attendance were several former city council members, most dressed in red in support of Cagle. Former mayor John Cowman, who was defeated by Chris Fielder in 2012, was also in attendance. 

Another notable individual in attendance was Leander businessman Andy Pitts, who has admitted to donating over $40,000 to the Texas Stronger PAC for the purpose of backing Hill and several other candidates who have been elected to the Leander City Council in the last two years. 

When interviewed Monday, Pitts said he was only a “casual observer” who was in attendance because he felt the hearing would be “interesting.” Pitts said he has only had minimal interaction with Cagle in the past, but had previously taken issue with some of Cagle’s social media posts, which he considered inappropriate for a city manager. 

When asked whether he had ever posted on social media calling for Cagle to be fired, Pitts said “I don’t recall saying that at all… I don’t recall saying that. It’s hard to say, I’ve probably posted a hundred posts on NextDoor.”

Allegations Against the Mayor

In an interview just days before his firing, Cagle alleged that Hill had threatened to fire him and provided a number of other specific allegations he feels led up to his eventual termination by Hill and the new council.

Cagle said one of his first interaction with Hill was on June 22, 2018, following Hill winning a runoff election against Vic Villarreal. He said Hill met him in the city manager’s office. 

“He walked in and said he couldn’t work with me. He said he was firing me,” Cagle said. “He said I needed to clean out my desk and move on. I told him he didn’t have the authority to fire me. He said he understood that and he would have the votes the next election.”

In an email, Hill denied the allegations. 

“I met with Kent, but didn’t tell him I was ‘firing him’ because I lacked the authority to do that,” Hill wrote.

Cagle said his next significant interaction with Hill involving his employment occurred on Aug. 1, 2018, when Hill asked him to have a lunch meeting without providing specifics about what they would discuss.

“He told me ‘If you want to keep your job, you can fire Tommy Yantis because he’s a liberal.’” Cagle said. “I told him ‘One, you don’t know his politics. And two, I wasn’t going to fire him.’”

Cagle said he wasn’t surprised about Hill’s feelings about Yantis, because he had been very vocal about it in council meetings. Yantis resigned from his post in Leander later that same month.

“I never told Kent to fire Tom Yantis because that also isn’t in my capacity to do,” Hill said in an email. “I have oversight of only the City Manager in my role. I am very fond of Tom Yantis and had nothing to do with his decision to leave. I have never told Kent Cagle to fire anyone nor would I.”

Cagle said Hill’s statements have weighed on him during his time as city manager.

Former council members Jeff Seiler, Andrea Navarrette and Shanan Shepherd, along with current council member Stephenson each confirmed Hill had repeatedly stated on the campaign trail and in office that Cagle and Yantis “had to go.” They also said they had heard the Hill call Yantis a “liberal” in the past, though some said they felt unsure whether he had meant that as a joke.

Additionally, the former council members said Hill had brought up wanting to fire Cagle during the November review, when Cagle was awarded a pay increase.

Seiler said Hill’s arguments for Cagle’s removal focused on Hill’s dissatisfaction with Cagle’s work developing the city, Hill’s frustration with Cagle making social media posts that Hill considered inappropriate for a city manager, and Hill’s frustration with Cagle allegedly continuing to have a relationship with former mayor Chris Fielder.

A follow-up email to Hill seeking a response to Seiler’s allegations was not returned on Monday.

Cagle declined to comment on why he believed Hill brought the termination agenda item. He said he couldn’t provide a specific response because he still has not been given the specifics of any allegations against him.

Turnover Trend

Cagle’s dismissal marked the fourth departure of a senior member of city staff since Hill’s election. 

Less than two hours before the council meeting to terminate Cagle, Mark Willis — the city’s economic development director — submitted a letter of resignation, effective June 14. 

"It is with considerable regret that I am resigning my position as Director of Economic Development for the City of Leander," Willis said in the letter. “The staff and professional leadership of the city are outstanding, and this team is one of the finest I have ever worked with in my 25-year career."

A release from the city said Willis became economic development director in 2015 and during his tenure, the city secured commitments from St. David’s Hospital to construct a 50-acre medical campus, reached an agreement with Lone Star Tangible Assets to host the Texas Bullion Depository and launched the city's Old Town incentive grant program.

Calls seeking comment from Willis have not been returned.

Eric Zeno, who served as Leander’s economic development manager, left in February to become economic development director in Lago Vista.