FORNEY, Texas — The City of Forney's Deputy City Manager, Neil Cardwell, has accepted and been named the city manager of a bustling cattle and ranch town of approximately 8,700 just west of Bozeman, Montana — Belgrade.
Cardwell won't soon forget Forney, though, as one of Belgrade's main thoroughfare bares a familiar name to Forneyites, Jackrabbit Lane. He's expected to start the new position on October 18, 2021, at a salary of $145,000.
Cardwell's eventual departure was expected but, his recent comments in a Belgrade newspaper bear irony.
Cardwell was the right-hand man to ousted City Manager Anthony "Tony" Carson who was removed from his position amid allegations from past, former, and current city employees of fostering and enabling a toxic and hostile work environment and creating a culture of fear among employees of retaliatory treatment. Which, ironically, is a reason Cardwell is now citing for his departure.
While many long-time City of Forney employees left, were forced out, retired, or were fired — Cardwell's career accelerated in less than three years. He was first hired in early 2019 (remember this date, as it's important later) as the director of information technology. Amid Carson's work-place allegations, a new position was created and Cardwell was promoted to director of operations in 2020. And, while in the midst of a grievance involving former Police Chief Micah Lunt, Carson created another new position, without council or budgetary approval, and promoted Cardwell to deputy city manager at the end of February 2021.
It was in his last role with the City of Forney that Cardwell was party to, as the deputy city manager overseeing the Forney Police Department, the apparent retaliatory firing of Chief Lunt — which, in turn, spurred a Texas Rangers investigation, an order by the Kaufman County Criminal District Attorney's Office that the City of Forney retain and preserve its records related to pending criminal investigations, and possible pending civil litigation.
Cardwell was also instrumental in the controversial spending of $1.4 million in CARES Act funds on 22 new vehicles, gym equipment, and new office construction — federal grant money intended to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus pandemic — as he oversaw the program and his name adorns many of the contracts and invoices inForney.com received in response to numerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the City of Forney.
Cardwell signed for, took possession of, expended funds, and started construction on these projects and purchases BEFORE seeking approval from the Texas Division of Emergency Management, the state agency charged with overseeing CARES Act expenditures. A TDEM auditor raised a red flag, notifying a regional unit chief of ineligible expenses on the City of Forney's initial Spend Plan with the agency, when the city sought reimbursement on the expenses.
The City of Forney was forced to remove all ineligible expenses from the Spend Plan and, instead, submitted a new Spend Plan for public safety payroll reimbursements and replaced revenue in their budget to cover the expenses. Revenue replacement, according to the CARES Act, is a violation of the act.
Despite newly created paperwork for public safety payroll expenditures, and a notice from TDEM confirming CARES Act funds could not be used for the purchase of the vehicles and other expenditures, the City of Forney and Carson issued their own statements, contradicting TDEM's, and maintained CARES Act funds were, in fact, used to purchase the vehicles and other expenditures.
Cardwell defended the grant process on Tuesday night before council stating all the paperwork had been submitted and the grant program had been closed as it related to the City of Forney's use of CARES Act funds to reimburse public safety payroll. Ironically, while responding to Council member Robbie Powers that the processes and procedures in which the grant program were administered were above board and within the law, Cardwell made no mention of the city's previous attempt to use the funds on ineligible expenditures before being shut down by TDEM and its auditors. Nor did Cardwell make mention of possibly expending $1.4 million in city funds without council approval — the comments made Tuesday in an effort to preclude the CARES Act spending from a forensic audit being discussed and approved by the council.
Cardwell toed the line when the several former and current council members did not want to address or provide funding for the city's non-functioning outdoor warning siren system.
In numerous council meetings, in a bid to not provide funding for and while touting the city's emergency notification system, Cardwell made numerous statements and instructed city staff to provide content for press and social media releases, which falsely claimed the Everbridge system could unilaterally send mass, location-based emergency notifications to everyone in the city's jurisdictional area without those persons voluntarily opting-in to receive such notifications — much like a NOAA weather or AMBER Alert. Cardwell made these claims despite his past experience in a "manager level position" at a 911 call center and repeated notices from then-Chief Lunt that statements about Everbridge functioning in this manner without iPAWS certification were "misleading."
"Forney does not have IPAWS access to notify persons in our geographic area independent of their registration status with Everbridge," Lunt told Cardwell, at that time, according to emails obtained by inForney.com in response to a FOIA request.
It wasn't until last month Cardwell admitted Everbridge did not function in this manner, without addressing his past false statements, and said the City of Forney was in the process of obtaining iPAWS certification. The council has since authorized a contract to begin replacing its non-functioning, three-siren system with 11 new sirens throughout the city limits. If it wasn't needed then, why is it needed now?
In an interview with the Belgrade News published this week, Cardwell says Forney is a case study in divisive local government.
“Not every city is as fortunate as Belgrade, which is diverse but unified,” Cardwell told the Belgrade News. “Forney is a case study in the opposite of that.”
Ironically, in that same article, Belgrade Mayor Russ Nelson said their council was impressed with Cardwell's experiences, or "issues," down in Texas — issues and divisions among staff Cardwell either created, exhorted, or perpetuated. Cardwell's name was mentioned by every former and current City of Forney employee during background on our coverage of the allegations against Carson.
Those interviews revealed allegations of cronyism as Cardwell, in a managerial position, is alleged to have hired several former employees or co-workers. The practice of hiring friends to these city positions, reportedly promoted by Carson to several department heads, led to lax oversight of one male IT employee who used the city's surveillance cameras to spy on a female employee at a different city facility. That employee no longer works for the City of Forney, following an investigation of the incident.
"He was part of the problem, and not part of the solution," a former elected official tells inForney.com, as they sought Cardwell's demotion in wake of Carson's separation.
Cardwell goes on to tell the Belgrade News he had turned down the job for city manager, a position never offered to him by the Forney City Council.
“The actual truth is I turned (the job) down on the advice of the city attorney,” he is quoted in the paper, "adding that he would not have applied for the city manager’s position had he intended to stay in Forney."
In fact, the same night and same motion the council passed authorizing Carson's separation, the council also appointed City Engineer Karl Zook as the acting city manager. When a decision was made to appoint former interim-City Manager Charles Daniels to the position, an interim role was needed as they awaited Daniels' availability. Zook continued in that role until Daniels arrival — Cardwell never a consideration, former and current council members tell inForney.com.
Upon Cardwell's initial promotion to deputy city manager, Carson assigned him oversight of the Forney Police Department, Forney Fire Department, and the Economic Development Cooperation. In May, two months after his promotion and now under a new city manager, Cardwell's responsibilities and oversight were reduced to fewer, smaller departments and he no longer oversees public safety or economic development.
And, as for the employment dates, the Belgrade News reports Cardwell served two years as the City of Forney's director of operations, two years as the director of technology, and as deputy city manager since February — nearly a five year tenure when, in fact, he hasn't even hit his three year anniversary with the City of Forney.
So, good luck Belgrade residents. Let us know if a one Anthony "Tony" Carson gets hired as your new Director of Information Technology. Wouldn't that be ironic.