Dawn Ullrich, president and CEO of Houston First—it runs Houston’s convention and tourism bureau and also operates a convention center, theatres, parking facilities and more—was abruptly fired last week (on Feb. 13) just a week after she submitted a letter announcing that she would retire at the end of this year. An attorney who has more than three decades experience working for the city of Houston—she came to Houston First when in 2011 when it was established following a number of years with the convention center.
Ullrich announced that she has retained an attorney and will challenge the decision to dismiss her, which was made by David Mincberg is chairman of the Houston First board of directors and chief executive officer of Flagship Properties Corporation. Mincberg announced the decision following a closed-door session with other board members.
Ullrich said through her attorney, David Feldman, that only Mayor Sylvester Turner has authority to discharge her. “Houston First has acted unlawfully,” said Feldman “We are determining how to proceed against them.”
Ullrich had informed the board and Turner by letter on Feb. 6 that she would retire Dec. 31. In an e-mail response on the same day, Mayor Turner praised Ullrich for her long service.”Though I hate to hear of your retirement, at least you will continue until the end of the year,” he wrote. “Your shoes will be hard to fill.”
But Mincberg was quoted as saying that he did not want a “lame-duck CEO” presiding over the organization for 11 months.
“After carefully considering your expressed desire to serve for the duration of 2018 and complete ongoing projects, Houston First believes that it is in the best interest of the Corporation to accelerate the necessary transition,” he wrote in a letter to Ullrich on Feb. 13.
Ullrich responded in an email that she had advised the board “out of courtesy” that she planned to retire at year’s end. “Your effort to treat my notice of retirement as a letter of resignation that you could put into effect immediately is unlawful, discriminatory and retaliatory,” she wrote. “You will be hearing from my counsel shortly with respect to the action you have taken.”
Feldman said only the mayor has authority to discharge Ullrich because city code dictates the Houston First position must be nominated by the mayor and approved by the city council.
According to Mincberg, the mayor’s involvement is not necessary to act because Ullrich was not a city employee. Houston First bylaws give the board authority to remove “any officer elected or appointed by the board of directors.” But, in a note that is a bit confusing, Mincberg said the board discussed Ullrich’s retirement during the closed session but did not vote on it.
Feldman, meanwhile, also raised concerns over the closed session to discuss “compensation, evaluation and/or duties for specific individual employees” during the board’s meeting on Tuesday. He said holding a private discussion about a high-level executive without specifying that on the agenda could have violated Texas open-meetings law.
Houston First is a quasi-public agency that manages a number of city-owned facilities, including the George R. Brown Convention Center, the Hilton Americas-Houston and several performing arts venues. In 2014, it assumed the duties of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau in promoting the city and attracting tourism. The agency has a $240 million budget and 240 staff members.