The City Council of Jefferson, Texas fired Juanita Chitwood, the city’s director of tourism development. Her termination was effective immediately.
In February, the City Council placed Chitwood on six months’ probation for insubordination after she did not comply with City Manager Jim Gibson’s directive to cut television advertising aimed at bringing tourists to town.
The council planned to discuss Chitwood’s employment in a closed session Thursday, but Chitwood requested the talk be held in the public. Mayor Bob Avery limited the discussion only to events occurring after her probation.
Gibson said that on February 17, he emailed Chitwood a list of goals to complete. The list included visiting another Texas tourism town and reporting her findings, researching and applying for a grant, and documenting all advertising. Gibson said Chitwood failed to sufficiently complete several of the goals; Chitwood said she did all that she was asked.
“Jefferson is my home and my first love,” said Chitwood, the Marion County Chamber of Commerce’s 2009 citizen of the year. “I take my job very, very seriously. I don’t know what I’ve done wrong.”
On April 17, Gibson said he asked Chitwood about her progress. He said Chitwood told him that she visited Natchez, Mississippi, and on April 23, she sent him a report about her observations. Gibson requested that she visit a Texas city and generate another report. Chitwood visited Fredericksburg and submitted a report in June.
Gibson also asked Chitwood to attend a seminar on social networking web sites, such as Facebook and Twitter and to begin using those sites as a marketing tool for the city.
“She was very unwilling to advertise in this way,” Gibson said.
Gibson asked Chitwood to apply for a grant to help the city with its tourism funding. He said he suggested applying for the Hometown Stars and Bootstrap Bucks grants through the Texas Department of Agriculture — both grants had a July 31 deadline.
Gibson said he reminded Chitwood about the grant, printed out information on it, and gave it to her in May. Chitwood, who had never written a grant before, hand-wrote the grant and submitted a draft to Gibson by mid-July. On July 23, Gibson asked one question and asked Chitwood to type the application. Chitwood asked him to sign the grant application.
Gibson said he did not sign the application because he had “no legal authority.” The grant required a City Council resolution, he added. He later said that Chitwood had listed him as the project coordinator and he could have signed in that place but failed to do so because he didn’t realize in time that he was listed in that designation.
Neither Chitwood nor Gibson said they realized the grant required a City Council resolution until it was too late. The item never was placed on a council agenda.
“Whether the grant was typed or not, it couldn’t have been sent because it was not sent to the council for approval,” said Alderman Bruce Key, who didn’t fault either party. Key added that more grant money would be available September 1. Between February and July, Gibson sent more assignments to Chitwood via email. Chitwood forwarded at least one set of assignments to some members of her tourism advisory board with the subject line “Jim Gibson’s homework.” Some aldermen indicated that showed disrespect toward her adviser.
“I feel like we’re in the biggest turmoil I’ve ever seen us in,” Alderman Heaster said. “I have a real problem with what’s happening.”
Heaster asked the council what would happen to the city’s tourism if Chitwood was fired. The city has created a new tourism board and opened a visitor center that must be staffed during the day. Avery said he knew of people willing to step in to volunteer at the visitor center until a replacement is found.
“To me, all of the businesses I’ve talked to have said, ‘I don’t know what we can do without Juanita,'” Alderman Key said. “Are we making the right decision?”
“We need to look at the overall picture,” Alderman Larry Pinkerton said. “The most important thing about your business is to have harmony … We’ve definitely got a big conflict here. It’s causing problems in city business.”
As the council voted, several people in the approximately 50-person crowd shouted, “You’re killing Jefferson” and “We’re going to lose all our tourism.”
“It’s ridiculous,” resident Diana Anthony said after the meeting.
“How dare they fire the citizen of the year,” said Kitt Williams, co-owner of Kitt’s Kornbread Sandwich and Pie Bar.
“The bottom line is our tourism is up,” said Sarah Williams, co-owner of the restaurant. “She’s bringing people here.”
Chitwood was the city’s tourism director about five years. She served as executive director of the chamber of commerce before that.
“I plan to explore my options in future employment in the same field I’ve been in for more than 20 years,” Chitwood said. “All I can say is that I have followed every direction and request that was asked of me. I wish the best for the city of Jefferson.”