Neil Cardwell, who will succeed Ted Barkley as Belgrade’s city manager on Oct. 18, has come under fire in a Forney, Texas, publication for remarks he made in an interview with the Belgrade News earlier this month.
In a lengthy editorial published Sept. 10, three days after the Belgrade City Council approved Cardwell’s contract with the city, the online news publication inForney.com characterized many of the statements Cardwell made to this newspaper as “ironic” and wished Belgrade residents “good luck” under his management. Cardwell has been deputy city manager in Forney since February.
Though inForney’s opinion piece does not attribute its assertions to any current or former Forney city officials, it does accuse Cardwell of making false statements and engaging in “cronyism” during his tenure with the city.
It further quotes an anonymous “former elected official” as saying, “He was part of the problem, and not part of the solution,” in Forney government.
This paper rarely reports on opinion pieces in other publications but believes inForney’s editorial is worth covering because the piece caught the attention of some Belgrade News readers. At least one of them has posted a link to the inForney piece on social media, where it has been the subject of some discussion and speculation.
The editorial also caught the attention of city officials.
Belgrade Mayor Russ Nelson told the Belgrade News this week that he and other members of the city council have seen and reviewed the editorial, which he characterized as “mudslinging” in a blog. He said the council remains “in full support of Neil.”
Nelson said the city relied on Prothman Executive Recruitment, the consultant hired by the city to conduct the city manager search, to thoroughly vet each candidate. He said Prothman, the same firm that recruited Barkley in 2013, has done well by the city in the past, and the council has “no concerns” about its recommendations this time.
After the council approved his contract, Cardwell told the Belgrade News that “not every city is as fortunate as Belgrade, which is diverse but unified. Forney is a case study in the opposite of that.” Upon Cardwell’s hiring, Nelson said the Belgrade council considered Cardwell’s navigation of that environment favorably when considering his candidacy.
“For his being the youngest of the bunch (of finalists), he has been through a lot of different issues down in Texas … he has grown up pretty quick,” Nelson said.
On Tuesday, Nelson said Cardwell had discussed inForney.com’s Sept. 10 editorial with the city and explained what inForney.com had “incorrect” to the satisfaction of the council, which is “looking forward to him being fully ingrained in Belgrade.”
Cardwell’s statements to the Belgrade News about the volatile environment in Forney city government were among those dissected in the inForney.com editorial. inForney said those statements were ironic, writing, “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 department.”
The rest of the editorial, in the same vein, suggests that Cardwell was party to other problems in city government but it cites few specific examples of his direct involvement.
For example, inForney.com called Cardwell “instrumental in the controversial spending of $1.4 million in CARES Act funds on 22 new vehicles, gym equipment, and new office construction ... BEFORE seeking approval from the Texas Division of Emergency Management, the state agency charged with overseeing CARES Act expenditures.”
The editorial goes on to say, “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.”
Though the editorial suggests Cardwell was involved in what inForney believes may have been mishandling of the CARES Act funds, a lengthy article about those expenditures first published by inForney.com in January 2021 and update in April does not specifically mention him. It instead focuses on then-City Manager Carson, who was let go by the Forney City Council in April.
Subsequent reporting on inForney.com stated that the city’s Spending Plan for the CARES Act funds had to be amended and that a forensic audit of city finances is underway.
Cardwell confirmed to the Belgrade News Tuesday that the audit, ordered by the recently elected Forney City Council, is underway, but added that the state of Texas and the federal government have found the city’s CARES Act spending to be in compliance with the law.
The inForney piece also calls out Cardwell for misstating his dates of employment with the city of Forney to the Belgrade News. However, upon reviewing notes taken during a conversation with Cardwell on Sept. 8, the Belgrade News believes the dates mentioned in a Sept. 9 BN article may have resulted from a misunderstanding of the conversation on the newspaper’s part. Belgrade News articles published in the preceding weeks about city manager finalists correctly reported that Cardwell had been an employee of the city of Forney since 2019.
In response to inForney’s references of “cronyism” for recruiting people he knew for city jobs from outside the city organization, Cardwell confirmed that he did alert people he knew from previous relationships to employment opportunities with the city.
“Were there people I had previous relationships with? Yes, I don’t think that’s unusual … I don’t view that as cronyism,” he said, adding that the successful candidates he recommended went through the standard application procedures and city hiring process.
inForney.com’s editorial also states that Cardwell was not truthful when he told the Belgrade News he had turned down the Forney city manager’s job after Carson’s departure. It cited interviews with “former and current council members” for evidence to support that statement but did not give their names.
Cardwell told the Belgrade News he doesn’t know which current and former officials inForney.com interviewed, and he did not elaborate further except to say he was not present during the council’s discussion about successors for the city manager job.
Cardwell said he is looking forward to showing “anybody (in Belgrade) who I am.”
Unlike Mayor Nelson, Cardwell stopped short of accusing inForney.com of “mudslinging,” instead saying, “Forney is full of very passionate people who want government to be open and transparent.”
“I would like to say that Forney is a magnificent place with wonderful people and staff,” he said. “I wish the best for their future growth.”
Cardwell said, “I am excited to begin and to work with staff and the wonderful citizens of Belgrade. I am dedicated to the success of this organization and to its integrity and openness.”
The Sept. 10 inForney editorial can be read in its entirety at www.inforney.com/opinion/editorials/