HEARNE -- The answers to the question that has plagued Hearne for months were packed neatly into an inconspicuous brown box that sat atop a table to the side of the council chambers Tuesday. But without an attorney present, the box went unopened, and the potential weight of what was inside -- the findings of the forensic audit on city finances -- were left unknown.
The looming completion of the audit has been invoked during debate by various Hearne City Council members over recent months, either as a warning of the wrongdoing it would unveil or as promise that it would put speculation of financial mismanagement to bed.
It appeared the day residents would get some answers had finally come Tuesday, when a special meeting was called for Austin-based Sage Investigations to present its findings to the City Council. But Ed Martin, chief investigator at the firm, said he wanted to "caution" the council about the box's contents, recommending that the council first hire an interim city attorney and discuss the audit in executive session before releasing the information to the public.
"Without the input of a lawyer, a city lawyer, to decide what needs to be disclosed and what doesn't need to be disclosed actually puts people -- not in jeopardy, per se -- but information that is gonna be in this report might have repercussions," Martin said.
Lamar Casparis, a certified forensic accountant who also worked on the audit, agreed, saying the report hasn't been properly vetted for a "public venue" yet, and without legal context he couldn't say how some of the findings could be perceived or if all of it will add value to the investigation.
"I, for one, am just trying to think about the city, trying to think about the elected officials, knowing some of the grief that the city has gone through in a number of years," Casparis said.
Mayor Ruben Gomez decided to adjourn the meeting, much to the dismay of Councilman Rodrick Jackson, who pushed for the audit to be presented anyway. After some back-and-forth over whether Gomez had the authority to end the meeting, he swiftly exited the building.
The night ended with a council member -- this time it was Jackson -- engaging in a spat with an audience member and police stepping in.
Jackson was a leading push behind the audit before his election to the council last May, gathering signatures along with Councilwoman Shirley Harris, former mayor Milton Johnson and Councilwoman Martha Castilleja -- who also was a council candidate at the time -- for a petition demanding an initiative election.
"There was much grief for the citizens to get this audit done ... the citizens wanted it," Jackson said. "We made sure that they got what they wanted; it is their money."
Jackson said he felt the city would "still be trying to hide things" by not presenting the audit Tuesday and insisted that the city could hire attorneys to handle any legal troubles that could arise from making the findings public.
"Why put the city in liability out there if that's not necessary?" Gomez asked, though earlier in the meeting he had asked if anything in the report could still be presented Tuesday night.
"That is the biggest concern to the public, is the millions of dollars that are missing from the city -- that has been said in the past," Gomez said. "And again, I would like that information, if possible, tonight. ... It's information that we need to put out in the public. We just want it presented, the facts concerning our finances."
Jackson asked why a request to hear a preliminary report before the resignation of law firm Denton Navarro Rocha Bernal Hyde & Zech in December was not granted. Martin said that he spoke about it with the attorneys, who "subsequently" resigned. This garnered an audible reaction from the audience.
"Once you see the report, you'll understand the content, and because of the content, it took a long time to get everything together," Martin said.
Gomez has insisted that the audit will put to rest the accusations of financial mismanagement that have been lodged against the city.
The audit has had trouble getting off the ground from the start. Though the petition received more than 500 signatures from Hearne residents asking that the audit be put to a vote, the initiative missed the deadline to appear on the May ballot. Despite that, the council voted to take the matter to court, deciding in March 2016 to ask a judge to determine if the initiative was legal.
A month later, the city sued Johnson, who led the initiative. The overhaul of the City Council in May, though, brought a critical eye to the use of city funds, and made the audit a reality again by hiring Sage Investigations with a maximum price tag of $120,000. The city has not yet received the final bill for the work.
For now, the box will remain sealed. The Eagle has requested a copy of the audit through the Texas Public Information Act, but interim city manager John Naron said the request will be sent to the Texas Attorney General's Office for a ruling because the report contains personal information that may need to be redacted.
One woman in the audience Tuesday said the residents of the Hearne want to know the truth, not a "doctored document from a lawyer." Gomez told her presenting the report in full would be a liability to the city.
"So we shouldn't have run off our city attorney," she said, receiving a resounding "amen" from those around her.