A controlling bloc of the Odessa City Council fired City Manager Richard Morton Tuesday during a heated meeting where attendees shouted down the elected officials who voted for his ouster, while opponents on the City Council criticized the move as destabilizing for the city.
Tuesday was the third time this year that the City Council discussed Morton’s removal. But this time, Morton asserted his right under state public meetings law to force a discussion in the open.
The swing vote was District 5 Councilman Filiberto Gonzales, who accused Morton of failing to support a long-troubled effort aimed at building business ties with Mexico that Gonzales champions. District 3 Councilwoman Barbara Graff and District 1 Councilman Malcolm Hamilton formed the rest of the majority that voted to remove Morton.
Gonzales is a member of the Odessa Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that manages the controversial program and, as he listed his grievances, he scolded Morton for failing to halt critical newspaper coverage.
“Are you not supposed to be neutral?” Gonzales said, prompting Morton to ask what he meant. “How many times have you gone into Larry’s (city attorney Larry Long) office and griped him out for trying to help the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and telling him to let them fail.”
“None,” Morton replied.
Gonzales asked Long, who said “He was complaining about my involvement. Yes.”
District 2 Councilman Dewey Bryant and District 4 Councilman Mike Gardner protested the decision to remove Morton. So did Mayor David Turner, who can only vote in cases of a tie.
Gardner praised Morton, specifically citing his financial management. He pointed to city employees in the room, including more than a dozen firefighters who attended in support of Morton.
“They are concerned that their boss is going to be removed for no reason whatsoever,” Gardner said, and he questioned the city’s ability to replace Morton. “Can you imagine trying to hire a city manager right now to come into this mess?”
Turner said he was “astonished” by Morton’s removal and said “we are losing a good man.”
After his dismissal, Morton said he planned to clean out his office immediately.
“I’m proud of everything I’ve done for the City of Odessa,” Morton said in an interview after shaking hands with the entire City Council. “I’ve done nothing wrong. . . and they just see it differently.”
The City Council did not name an interim-city manager, but senior assistant city attorneys remain in their posts. And Turner said he believed Assistant City Attorney Michael Marrero would serve as the top administrator in the meantime.
The outcry over Morton’s removal was immediate.
“That is terrible,” someone shouted.
“Shame,” said another. Someone else shouted “travesty.”
Some attendees started asking about recalling council members.
Former Mayor Larry Melton told the elected officials who ousted Morton that “you now hold the record for the most ridiculous action ever taken by the City Council.”
He and other former City Council members argued before the vote for Morton to keep his job.
Other opponents of Morton’s removal included Sondra and Toby Eoff, the private investors in the roughly $80 million downtown hotel and conference center backed by the city.
Sondra Eoff said “our city council appears divisive” and that Morton’s work on the project had been key to their participation. She said “concerns about the volatility of the council” had created difficulty recruiting investors in an additional private downtown project they want to pursue.
But the controlling bloc on the City Council rebuffed those issues.
“Nothing including this city depends on one person,” Graff said, before Hamilton agreed with “absolutely.” Then Graff continued: “And you want to know who’s done almost all the work about the hotel? Larry, and his staff.”
People in the crowd laughed.
And Toby Eoff responded: “That’s an insult.”
In response to Gonzales’ comments, Turner criticized the Mexico Initiative that he had supported for years as mayor for its management under the Hispanic Chamber. He said the “simple problem with the Mexico Initiative has been leadership,” and he pointed to the Hispanic Chamber requiring outside help with their books, hired by the city, as an example.
“The simple fact is people expect results, and we are not seeing those,” Turner said.
Morton served as city manager for more than 15 years, a period that saw multimillion dollar investments in public works and parks, a deal to sell city wastewater to an oil company, and progress on the prospect of securing a new water supply, among other accomplishments that supporters pointed to during his tenure.
The city manager held the top post through tragedy when three Odessa Police Officers were murdered 10 years ago, leadership a former councilman praised Morton for.
Morton also managed a recent effort aimed at redeveloping downtown.
In her arguments for firing Morton, Graff cited a range of grievances and accused the city manager of not shoring up a water supply during a drought years ago, which the city cannot control on its own because of a long-term arrangement with the Colorado River Municipal Water District.
Graff also complained that Morton had not implemented more of a long-range plan — including in the budget she had voted to pass earlier in the evening without proposing any changes. She faulted Morton for trying to privatize a city auto-shop and site a garage in a neighborhood in support of the Mexico Initiative, saying “I fought the Mexico Initiative.” But she’s long backed the program.
“I think we need fresh leadership, I really do,” Graff said.
Morton struggled to respond to her complaints.
“Half of that’s just not correct, maybe more,” Morton said. “But I cannot change your opinion.”
Bryant became angry and slammed his hand on the table as he defended Morton and praised the city’s progress, saying “Richard’s done everything he can to improve the lifestyle we’ve got within our city.”
“We have got things that we should be positive about, and we are fighting every day,” Bryant said. “And it wears me out.”
The City Council discussion to oust the city manager came on the same night that the elected officials voted to approve the $86.6 million general spending budget proposed by Morton. The City Council did not alter the proposed budget before the vote.
The City Council also had a public hearing about raising the property tax rate by 2.26 cents. The final vote is scheduled for Sept. 26.
After months of controversy surrounding the city board that oversees economic development tax money, the City Council also approved a more than $2.8 million expenditure budget for the Odessa Development Corporation, which oversees nearly $35 million more in money reserved for business incentives.
The ODC budget includes a public payout for Gonzales’ close associate for his years as a volunteer managing a controversial effort aimed at building ties with Mexico.
Gonzales and Graff voted against the ODC budget, but the remaining three Council members approved it.
Tuesday was also the first time the City Council met behind closed doors since a May 9 meeting that preceded the decision to oust the former president of the ODC, Jimmy Breaux, without any public explanation.
But it was Long, not Morton who was discussed in the closed meeting. No one publicly discussed the personnel matter involving Long after the closed meeting. Turner declined to discuss what it was about, citing the closed session, and so did Morton, who did not participate in it.
Gardner refused to go behind closed doors.
After the May 9 meeting, The Odessa American sued the City Council alleging violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act. That case is ongoing.
ORIGINAL VERSION: The Odessa City Council has fired Odessa City Manager Richard Morton in a 3-2 vote during a heated meeting tonight. Please check back later for more information.