After key staff departures, Flower Mound's interim leader aims to steady the ship

The Flower Mound Library is one of many public facilities and services the town manager oversees. (Daniel Houston/Community Impact Newspaper)
The Flower Mound Library is one of many public facilities and services the town manager oversees. (Daniel Houston/Community Impact Newspaper)

The Flower Mound Library is one of many public facilities and services the town manager oversees. (Daniel Houston/Community Impact Newspaper)

Flower Mound Town Council members were moving swiftly in January to interview finalists to fill the town’s top executive position, thinking that interim Town Manager Debra Wallace would soon retire.

But then, Wallace said, her personal plans changed, which prompted her to approach the council with an alternative: an extended period with her at the helm.

“I told them I could do it for a year or two years, even,” said Wallace, who has been with the town for nearly eight years, including her current dual role as chief financial officer and interim town manager. “It’s an indefinite time. ... We’ve been going through some crazy times in the last year, and I think I can provide that stability that we need to keep moving forward.”

Wallace’s account sheds light on why the town paused its search for its next town manager and adds more as the town navigates this transition.

On Jan. 27, the town of Flower Mound formally delayed the hire of its next chief executive. Officials expressed confidence in Wallace as she continues to serve in an interim capacity.

“Debra has provided excellent leadership to this organization during the recent transition,” Mayor Steve Dixon said in a town statement. “And given the need to fill key vacancies, the Town Council believes it is in our best interest to ask her to continue in that role until we feel we are ready for a new Town Manager to take on this important position.”

The council is expected to resume its search for a permanent town manager eventually. The outside firm conducting the search will restart its recruitment efforts when council is ready, according to the statement.

In the meantime, the town will move forward with filling other top vacancies while keeping its focus on some of the major initiatives and development projects that were already in the pipeline before the decision, Wallace said.

A string of vacancies

When longtime Town Manager Jimmy Stathatos left in September for the city of Bedford, he ended up taking two key staff members with him.

Two months after Stathatos’ departure, the town’s director of economic development, Andrea Roy, followed him to Bedford. Molly Fox, Flower Mound’s former communications director, left for Bedford in February.

Initially, the responsibility to hire Roy’s replacement was expected to fall to the next permanent town manager. Now, Wallace will help oversee that process.

J.P. Walton, assistant to the town manager, is serving temporarily in Roy’s former role. Wallace said she does not expect that to change immediately. The town was not interviewing candidates for the role as of Feb. 10, when Wallace spoke with Community Impact Newspaper.

Before a new economic development director is hired, the town is expected to consider a structural change that could shift who that position reports to, Wallace said. The economic development director currently reports to the town manager. Wallace declined to elaborate further and said no decision has yet been made.

Wallace said she expects to move more quickly to fill the empty communications director job, which she described as more of a pressing need for the town staff.

During the now-paused hiring process, some council members indicated that they saw the openings of key positions as an opportunity for the next town manager to pick his or her staff.

“I think we are in the best circumstances to bring in a new town manager who is then able to hire their own team due to available vacancies at executive level,” Council Member Sandeep Sharma said Jan. 26.

The next day, the town announced the council’s decision to stick with Wallace instead.

For Wallace, the choice to stay on as interim town manager for an extended period was also brought about by her desire to provide reassurance to the hundreds of town staff members during a period of change, she said.

“There’s always a lot of angst when you have changes within an organization,” Wallace said. “Again, I felt I could provide the stability to maybe put a Band-Aid on that, if you will—provide stability not just for the town, but also for the employees.”

Initiatives on the horizon

Now firmly at the helm for the foreseeable future, Wallace is expected to oversee town staff through some of the biggest decisions it has made in years.

The largest of these projects involves working with developers on the plans for Furst Ranch, a multibillion-dollar development that would reshape miles of farmland on Flower Mound’s west side into a bustling residential and commercial hub.

Town staff members remain committed to walking the developers through the complex approval process, Wallace said. This process is expected to involve rezoning properties, amending the town’s master plan, forming of new tax and public improvement districts, approving concept plans and possibly annexing unincorporated land.

The project is expected to last decades, but several of the key approval stages are expected to play out this year, Wallace said.

Ultimately, the decisions to approve the various components of Furst Ranch—as well as what types of development will be allowed—will fall to Town Council, not staff. The staff’s role is to facilitate communication between all parties and the public as well as to help usher each part of the plan through the formal process, she said.

Wallace is also expected to guide the town’s government through another pandemic-era budget season that, as with last year’s, will likely be filled with uncertainty about future revenue. In the first few months of the pandemic, municipal governments braced for possible losses to two of their major sources of revenue: property taxes and sales taxes. However, some of those numbers came in better than expected, Wallace said.

The town took quick action last year to furlough 148 employees, including part-time workers, seasonal workers, crossing guards and some employees at then-shuttered town facilities.

In an effort to account for the economic uncertainty, the town then passed a budget for fiscal year 2020-21 that cut general-fund spending by 3%. The budget planned not to add any new full-time positions in FY 2020-21 and not to affect any salary increases for current employees.

Even though some of the sales and property tax numbers have come out higher than was once feared, Wallace said she expects the town will continue to budget conservatively until this uncertain period passes.

“Just from my standpoint, I’m going to do like I have done for the past eight years: I’m going to make sure that I look out for the interests of all of Flower Mound,” Wallace said. “That’s all the people, not just whoever squawks the loudest. That’s just the way I do business.”
By Daniel Houston
Daniel Houston covers city government, transportation, business and education for Community Impact Newspaper in Lewisville, Flower Mound and Highland Village. A Fort Worth native and Baylor University graduate, Daniel reported previously for The Associated Press in Oklahoma City and The Dallas Morning News.


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