City to pay fired staffers Brooks, Marrero

The Odessa City Council came out of about an hour-long Tuesday executive session and voted 6-1 to pay fired City Manager Michael Marrero $250,000 and fired City Attorney Natasha Brooks $180,000.

The Odessa City Council terminated Marrero and Brooks’ contracts by a 5-3 vote on Dec. 13 without explanation. After Odessa attorney Gaven Norris filed a lawsuit claiming the council violated the Texas Open Meetings Act, the council gave residents a chance to speak on the matter Jan. 9 and again voted to terminate the pair.

This settlement deal comes after Brooks filed a complaint with the Texas Workforce Commission’s Civil Rights Division last month alleging Mayor Javier Joven and her replacement, Dan Jones, were hostile toward her, former City Councilwoman Mari Willis and former Assistant City Attorney Monique Wimberly because they are Black.

The Odessa American obtained the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint from the City as a result of a Texas Public Information Act request after it was leaked to the Odessa Accountability Project, a Facebook page operated by Jamie Tisdale, a vocal proponent of Joven.

The OA originally requested the document from the Texas Workforce Commission’s Civil Rights Division, but was told such records are confidential.”If you are seeking confidential information on someone other than yourself, you must show authorization to receive these records by providing a written release signed by the party whose records are at issue,” the TWC wrote.

According to records obtained from the OA this week, Brooks’ attorney, John Wenke, sent the complaint to one of the city’s outside counsel, Jeff Whitfield, and Whitfield forwarded it to Jones at 1 p.m. July 7.

Shortly after midnight on Saturday, July 8, Jones sent a copy of the complaint to Interim City Manager Agapito Bernal, the city council and City Secretary Norma Grimaldo.

According to Brooks’ complaint, Joven openly “criticized, challenged and belittled” Willis and Jones once told former Assistant City Attorney Jan Baker he had coached Joven to make Willis look like an “angry Black woman.”

In another instance, Brooks said Jones told Baker that she (Brooks) and Willis were a “bunch of Aunt Jemimas.”

While Willis wasn’t named in the complaint, she was the only Black city council woman during the relevant time period.

According to the complaint, Brooks told Human Resource Director Charles Hurst about Jones’ comments, but she isn’t sure it was investigated.

“The mayor and Jones were often indifferent or rude in their interactions with complainant, often not acknowledging her when she was present or belittling her,” the complaint stated.

According to the complaint, Jones and Joven also treated a Black assistant city attorney disrespectfully and Jones removed so many of her duties and marginalized her so much she was forced to resign, citing “disintegration of work environment.”

The complaint doesn’t name that attorney, but according to records obtained by the Odessa American, Assistant City Attorney Monique Wimberly used that exact phrase when she resigned.

In an earlier interview, Baker said she retired because “it was too dangerous to be there. I’ve had my bar license for 30-plus years and I didn’t want to lose it with what the mayor and his people were doing. They always blame legal when things go wrong and I didn’t want to lose my license over what they did. I didn’t trust them and I didn’t want to lose my reputation or my license.”

The complaint stated Brooks was never provided a written termination notice and it wasn’t until Jan. 30 that she was told she was fired for “good cause” and not entitled to her severance, which includes one years’ salary.

The complaint notes that allegations about her illegally backdating documents pertained to events that took place two years prior and she wasn’t provided an opportunity to respond.

“The proffered reason for the termination was created after the termination decision was made and is clearly pretextual,” the complaint stated.

Brooks, through her attorney, claims that in order to punish her for seeking her severance pay, Councilwoman Denise Swanner began “an assault on her professional reputation,” by filing a State Bar complaint against her and then reporting the confidential filing to a “local newspaper” to embarrass her.

On Feb. 27, the complaint states Joven filed a “virtually identical” bar complaint. “Upon information and belief, this was done at the direction of the Odessa City Attorney’s Office.”

As of Friday, there is no public disciplinary history for Brooks from the State Bar of Texas.

The complaint also notes the city is paying Jones more than Brooks was earning despite the fact he’s only been practicing law in Texas for five years, while she had been an attorney in Texas since 2004.

Brooks alleges her race was a motivating factor in the council’s decision to terminate her and to not pay her severance, a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The City of Odessa previously researched ways to avoid paying Marrero and Brooks.

Since then, the Odessa American has filed several open records requests seeking non-privileged emails and other documents exchanged between Brooks, Marrero, their attorneys and the city’s legal staff and city officials.

On May 17, city staff provided the OA with thousands of documents, most of which had been disclosed earlier. Among the mundane documents were city council agendas, OA articles and emails about such things as Odessa becoming a sanctuary city, time sheets, committee meetings and cancellations, dress codes, inter-local agreements and special event scheduling.

However, the OA was able to find approximately a dozen emails that hadn’t been provided earlier pertaining to potential litigation.

On Dec. 15, Grapevine attorney Richard Hill sent the city a letter announcing he’d been hired by Marrero and reminding them about the terms of Marrero’s contract. He noted Marrero was due one year’s salary, continued health insurance benefits for one year or until he found a new job and all other salary and benefits listed in his contract. He followed up with a nearly identical letter on Jan. 11.

On Dec. 19, then Interim City Attorney Dan Jones asked Interim City Manager Agapito Bernal how much money Brooks and Marrero were due and Bernal instructed Larry Fry, the city’s now former finance director, to gather the figures.

On March 7, Amarillo attorney Iwana Rademaekers informed Jones she now represents Marrero. She noted that while the city had paid Marrero some of what he was due, he had not yet received his annual salary of $238,000 as his contract dictated.

Rademaekers told Jones if the city did not pay her client within 30 days, he would pursue “all legal remedies available to him, including compensatory damages and the attorneys’ fees he has incurred.”

As for Brooks, Jones sent an email to First Assistant Ector County District Attorney Greg Barber on Jan. 23. He asked if Brooks had broken the law two years before she was fired by allegedly ordering staff members to backdate conflict of interest documents signed by City Council member Steve Thompson.

He also asked if she had violated the law by allegedly ordering staff members to destroy the backdated documents. Jones further enquired as to whether Brooks may have committed other crimes besides destruction of government property.

Jones also asked Barber to grant “complete immunity” to Thompson, City Secretary Norma Aguilar-Grimaldo and public notary Naira Enriquez.

On Feb. 10, El Paso attorney John Wenke sent the city a letter informing officials he was hired by Brooks and she intended to file a legal claim against the city for breach of contract and race discrimination. He gave city officials formal notice they should not “destroy, conceal or alter in any matter, any or all evidence, documents, information, electronically stored information and/or other tangible items that pertain or relate to Ms. Brooks’ employment, termination, allegations of misconduct and investigations related to these allegations.”

Wenke wrote that during her time with the city Brooks had consistently received favorable performance evaluations and pay raises. She’d never been disciplined and when she was terminated, she wasn’t given a termination letter or explanation, he said.

Wenke followed up with a letter to Jones on March 6, stating he had not heard back.

“I would surmise that the city and its insurer would be interested in discussing a possible resolution of legal claims brought by a city attorney with no discipline and excellent evaluations, especially in light of the recent verdict against the City of Hutto, Texas, who decided to renege on a severance agreement with their former black city manager and now has to address a $12.5 million race discrimination jury verdict,” Wenke wrote.

One of the city’s contract attorneys, Jeff Whitfield, responded on March 22 by informing Brooks she was fired for good cause, specifically the “falsified conflict of waiver documents.”

As result, Whitfield told Brooks she wasn’t entitled to what she would have received otherwise, including her final year’s salary of $185,400. He further informed her she had the right to mediation on the question of whether her termination was for “good cause.”

On May 4, Jones sent Whitfield the minutes and video of the city’s Nov. 17, 2020 meeting during which Brooks was named city attorney.

He claimed Brooks’ appointment wasn’t properly noticed and when the council came out of executive session they didn’t discuss her contract, they simply voted on it.

“What are your thoughts on how to make use of this new revelation about Brooks’ appointment not having been discussed in open session? I’ve not checked statute of limitations on open meeting act violation claim, but that’s the first thought that comes to mind,” Whitfield wrote back.

Jones told Whitfield “I’m thinking this is the first place we look,” apparently referring to the meeting minutes. He noted a four-year statute of limitations.

Ironically enough, Jones’ own appointment had to be voted on twice because his appointment on April 11 wasn’t noticed properly the first time.

Roughly two weeks later, Jones sent another letter to Whitfield, this one about Marrero.

Jones sent Whitfield a copy of the minutes of the city’s April 24, 2018 meeting during which Marrero was hired as city manager. According to those minutes, then District 5 Council member Filiberto Gonzales moved for Marrero to be elevated from interim city manager to city manager at a salary of $238,000 and the council voted unanimously to accept the motion.

Jones pointed out the council did not approve a contract for Marrero and he instructed Whitfield to “take a look, this may say the contract is invalid and (Marrero) receives nothing.”

The OA is possession of a city manager agreement signed May 9, 2018, by Marrero and then-Mayor David Turner.