The Odessa City Council may reform its meetings to discuss city business in front of more Odessans, potentially scrapping public sessions where they debate issues before they come to a vote.
On the face of it, the discussed changes relate to what room the City Council meets in and when. But council members also pointed to a need to improve transparency, an acknowledgement following the turmoil on the board in 2017, including controversies relating to individual council members and contentious decisions such as the removal of the city manager in September.
The meetings the City Council discussed doing away with are already public but are more sparsely attended than the regular meetings inside City Hall chambers where council members vote on public business, which usually fall twice a month.
“You’ve got some people out there that say we are not doing a very good job,” District 3 Councilwoman Barbara Graff said, during one of those meetings on Tuesday. “If I came to our council meetings I would leave here not knowing very much about what’s going on with the city.”
The other public meetings often involve greater discussion, but a smaller audience that includes presenters or media.
One of these meetings is a “briefing” session, generally lasting an hour immediately before the regular council meetings, where council members meet in a smaller room and discuss issues they are about to vote on or broader issues with city staff.
On Tuesday, the briefing included a discussion about buying additional property along University Boulevard. A project to widen the thoroughfare is already underway. But the purpose of the additional properties, as they become for sale, would be to make way for further widening of the roadway if needed decades from now.
The council discussed options with city staff and did not vote.
In weeks where the council does not have a regular meeting, they usually meet for a finance committee. At one such meeting, on Jan. 16, for example, council members discussed creating an economic development zone for downtown Odessa in order to pay for downtown improvement projects. Interim City Manager Michael Marrero said an internal study suggested such a strategy would produce modest returns and asked the council to hire a consultant to study it further.
The recent proposals to scrap the finance meeting and the briefing sessions came from Graff and Mayor David Turner.
“If you are going to educate the public, we need to do away with the briefing,” Turner said.
Anyone can attend the briefings but often do not. District 1 Councilman Malcolm Hamilton said he would not oppose doing away with them and that Odessans “deserve at least that opportunity to hear more of the process.”
The officials made their suggestions during a debate sought by Graff about the way the city bundles into a single vote decisions on routine matters like approving meeting minutes, accepting grants and funding scheduled equipment replacements — something called a “consent agenda” that she wanted to pare down or do away with.
Top city administrators say the interim city manager and city attorney compiling the consent agenda is an efficient tool common in local government that keeps meetings from running long.
Graff stopped short of agreeing with Turner’s proposal to scrap the briefing sessions, saying she wanted to hear presentations such as the one about University Boulevard again if they come before the board for a vote.
Issues discussed at the finance meetings often precede a vote the next week.
“I like coming to the finance committee because it educates me on probably over half of what were going to discuss in the City Council meeting,” District 5 Councilman Filiberto Gonzales said.
Council members did not decide or vote on reforming their meetings Tuesday. And some council members including District 2 Councilman Dewey Bryant and Gonzales said they thought the existing system works.
The discussion about reforming meetings did not include the sort of closed meetings that are the subject of an ongoing lawsuit by the Odessa American. The lawsuit, alleging violations of open meetings law that requires most public business to be conducted in public, followed a May 9 meeting where council members met behind closed doors for more than 50 minutes before removing the head of the Odessa Development Corporation without public explanation.
But Graff acknowledged the lack of transparency that accompanies such closed sessions, which the public is barred from observing.
“Just have a closed session, close the door and don’t let anybody know,” Graff said. “That’s kind of what we are doing.”