Two former employees of Bandera County’s Central Appraisal District who complained to the district’s board last month about harassment and other improprieties by district administrators have been fired despite their requests to the board for protection from termination decisions or future acts of retaliation.
One of the former staffers, appraiser Melissa Checkovage, said she already had sought protection and been approved for coverage under the Texas Whistleblowers Act, which prohibits public employers from suspending or terminating the employment of employees who alleged legal violations by their employers or co-workers.
The other woman, former Deputy Chief Appraiser Jana Camp Herrera, told the board during a Jan. 30 meeting that as a result of information she had learned, she was requesting whistleblower protection from the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation.
That agency oversees the operations of property tax professionals like the officials overseeing the appraisal district and is in the process of reviewing complaints against the district.
Checkovage said that as she was clocking out of work on Thursday, Feb. 6, the CAD’s chief appraiser, Wendy M. Grams, told her she was being released.
Checkovage said Grams did outline a reason for the termination decision, but Checkovage did not want to discuss what that reason was without consulting an attorney first.
She did feel the decision was an act of retaliation and said she never dreamed the firing would happen, “especially after I asked the board for protection.”
The situation was a little different for Herrera, who had been the district’s deputy chief appraiser since 2018 and had worked for the appraisal district earlier in her career.
When she made complaints to the board on Jan. 30, she had been told by her employers earlier in the month that she could resign or be fired after complaining about the way she had been managed at the district. Herrera said she did not resign and had never gotten a letter from the district saying her employment was being ended.
She said last week, however, that the district sent her a certified letter on Jan. 30, the same day she appeared before the CAD board, saying she had been fired as of Jan. 27. It gave no cause for the decision, Herrera said.
Herrera contended she had complained to her boss that she was being unfairly held to a higher standard than other management team members.
She also said she had been assigned to assist in the defense of claims that the Bandera County River Authority and Groundwater District had made against Grams to the licensing and regulation department in December 2018.
Early on, Herrera said she only was aware of the district’s arguments against the complaint, which alleged improper appraisal practices and a variety of other misdeeds asserted by district employees who wanted to remain anonymous.
Herrera said she later reviewed evidence that supported the claims of the groundwater district against the district and felt like she had been duped into believing otherwise.
Checkovage, on the other hand, told the board that her experiences in the district had gotten worse after initial speculation about her involvement in a complaint filed against Grams with the state in December 2018 became fact last December. That’s when the chief appraiser and district attorneys examined evidence about the complaint in Austin.
Checkovage said she was exposed to “more intense mistreatment” after that.
She lodged a formal complaint against Grams and the district’s Administrative Coordinator Angie Massey related to harassment and retaliation when she spoke to the board last month.
The board’s president, Bo Mansfield, told Herrera, Checkovage and other individuals who had brought complaint against the district to the board that the complaints would be taken seriously and would be examined by the district’s attorneys for action. He was not certain how long that review would take.
Clarissa Rodriguez, an attorney with the firm of Denton Navarro Rocha Bernal & Zech, which represents the appraisal district in personnel matters, said on Monday, Feb. 10, that personnel policy violations were behind the dismissal of Checkovage, not information about complaints filed with the state.
While the certified letter to Herrera was not clear about the cause of her dismissal, performance issues had been raised against the former deputy chief appraiser, Rodriguez said.
Herrera acknowledge that she had been written up for disciplinary issues in the past but said that she had refuted them in detail.
She remained uncertain about the reason for her removal last month and was in the process of retaining legal representation to move forward with a complaint and to confirm her status as a whistleblower.
Whether the district’s termination decision involving Checkovage violated the Whistleblower’s Act was unclear earlier this week, but it was a matter that concerned Bandera County Tax Assessor-Collector Gwenda Tschirhart, who is a non-voting member of the district’s board.
Violations of the Whistleblower Act if proven entitle the plaintiff to actual damages, reasonable attorneys fees, reinstatement to his or her former position and compensatory damages for mental anguish, associated financial losses and other impacts.
Those costs if realized could affect all the taxpayers of Bandera County, Tschirhart said.