The city of San Marcos fired its construction project manager, Jason Pence, Jan. 27 after placing him on paid administrative leave in December to investigate allegations that he engaged in improper purchasing practices related to city construction.
In a Jan. 27 letter, the city requested that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office allow records related to Pence’s conduct be withheld from the public following a records request by Community Impact Newspaper, stating that their release would interfere with an ongoing criminal investigation being conducted by the Texas Rangers.
The firing comes just weeks after a special report by Community Impact Newspaper showed, based on the review of thousands of pages of documents, that the city bypassed the legally required competitive bidding process through the use of change orders. The city declined to comment for this story.
That report was based on a review of 120 contracts awarded between January 2013 and February 2019 to Boerne-based construction company The Fence Lady Inc., which is owned by Rebecca Dean.
The city of San Marcos awarded The Fence Lady with $3.2 million in contracts during this time, records show. But through change orders approved by the city, The Fence Lady’s earnings increased by $922,309—or 28.82%.
Pence was charged with managing the city’s construction projects, approving change orders, and monitoring and authorizing expenditures related to city construction projects, according to a job description provided by the city.
Pence declined to comment for this story.
Rebecca Ybarra, who has served as the director of the San Marcos Convention and Visitor Bureau for 21 years, said in December that she believes Pence had a “conflict of interest” when it came to his authority to administer and sign off on Dean’s construction contracts and associated change orders because of the pair’s professional and personal history.
She said she first became concerned after witnessing Pence and Dean improperly handle a 2018 construction project on the bureau for which the city hired The Fence Lady.
Pence said in December that he never acted improperly as the city’s project manager.
Pence previously confirmed that he and Dean have known each other for about 15 years and worked on construction projects together in the private sector before he became a city employee in 2014. The city declined to comment on whether Pence ever disclosed his past professional relationship with Dean.
The attorney general’s office has not yet issued a ruling on whether the city will have to release any records related to Pence’s conduct.
“The release of the requested information would interfere with the pending criminal investigation,” the city stated in its letter to the attorney general’s office. “Public disclosure of this type of information works to diminish the law enforcement agency’s ability to protect the strategy used to provide public safety for the community.”
City emails obtained through a public records request showed that Ybarra was not alone in her concern.
Since at least 2016, multiple city employees—including senior members of the finance staff—and elected officials have questioned the city’s business with The Fence Lady, internal emails showed.
The concerns led to a May 2016 audit in which the city’s former contract administrator flagged several projects The Fence Lady was hired for, noting that some of Dean’s change orders that the city approved increased the final prices of projects to include work outside of the scope of the original contracts or to account for materials and services that should have already been included in the price of Dean’s original contracts.
Procurement Program Administrator Veronica Bradshaw stated in a 2017 email obtained through a public records request that this pattern caused outside vendors to question the city’s integrity.
In December, the city declined to comment on questions about the handling of specific projects. It did, however, state that the policy changes were made to “improve procurement practices to ensure compliance with state law.”
Documents show the city awarded The Fence Lady a construction contract as recently as February 2019. The city declined to comment on whether it has any active contracts with the company.
“The Fence Lady has continued to earn city business and has followed the bid and procurement process established by the city’s purchasing department,” the city stated in December.
Dean declined to respond to specific questions for the December report, but provided a written statement.
“We adhere to and abide by all the contracting policies established by the City and our other clients,” Dean stated. “We have no control over the rumors, opinions, perceptions and assumptions of City employees or citizens. We however, are grateful for the relationship we have fostered with the City over the years, and look forward to working for them now and in the future.”