Council to discuss futures of municipal court judges

Embattled Odessa Municipal Court Judge Carlos Rodriguez is back on the Odessa City Council agenda.

For the third time in under a year, the city council is scheduled to meet in executive session Tuesday evening to discuss the “employment, evaluation, duties, discipline, complaint or dismissal” of Rodriguez and Associate Municipal Court Judge Keith Kidd.

The first time the pair was discussed was Dec. 13, the night City Manager Michael Marrero and City Attorney Natasha Brooks were fired. The second time was a month later when a handful of local attorneys spoke out in favor of the judges.

During the Jan. 24 meeting, the attorneys stood before the city council and strenuously objected to replacing Rodriguez on the bench. Attorney Gaven Norris speculated Rodriguez was on the chopping block because he may have gotten into a dispute with Mayor Javier Joven after Joven sent a letter to Rodriguez and Kidd about Operation Graduation.

In the letter, Joven wrote, “I request that you consider the maximum penalty for any social host violations and for any minor in possession citations.” Norris described the letter as being inappropriate, but Joven insisted he wasn’t trying to intimidate the judges.

Norris and attorney Anthony Robles also wondered if someone was upset steps had been taken to restrict access to juvenile records. Robles went so far as to poll each of the council members as to whether they were accessing juvenile records. All denied doing so, including Councilwoman Denise Swanner, who at the time was working for Teen Court as an assistant coordinator.

Following the meeting, Teen Court Coordinator Rebecca Grisham said Swanner had occassionally accessed the files up until three years’ prior when a new policy was implemented prohibiting Swanner, herself and other city employees from accessing them.

Swanner was fired from her position in March.

The council ended up tabling the discussion on the judges at that time, but Rodriguez was again a topic of discussion during an April 26 council meeting.

City Attorney Dan Jones accused Rodriguez of ignoring a Texas Supreme Court official’s directives regarding the dissemination of a security committee’s agendas or meeting minutes. Jones also said he was concerned the judge hadn’t appointed the city manager or a city council member to the security committee.

According to internal emails obtained last Monday by the Odessa American under the Texas Public Information Act, the judge disputed Jones’ portrayal of the events.

According to the emails, the judge said things had been “blown up out of proportion.” Rodriguez wrote he confirmed the meeting minutes and agendas are judicial records that, under Section 12 of the Rules of Judicial Administration, are exempt from disclosure. However, he said the Supreme Court official was researching how the records could be given to the city manager and council members “without them being vulnerable to release to the general public.”

As of April 26, Rodriguez said he hadn’t heard from the official and he suspected it was because the official had spoken with Jones and may have felt the issue had been resolved.

“Mr. (Hector) Gomez and I did not have any conversation about who should serve on the committee, other than a recommendation that I involve law enforcement, as our conversation was focused on the release of judicial records,” Rodriguez wrote. “Mr. Gomez did not give me the recommendation that he gave Mr. Jones, that a member of council and city management should serve on the committee.”

If Gomez had given him the recommendation, Rodriguez said he would have followed it “as he is the expert in this topic.”

Rodriguez said it was portrayed as though he was “intentionally dismissing” Gomez’s recommendations, but he was not.

“I have not been attempting to exclude you or council, just wanting to be sure I am in compliance with the law and statute before making any decisions,” Rodriguez said an email to then Interim City Manager Agapito Bernal. “With that said, I am glad Mr. Gomez gave a solution that will work for everyone. I look forward to welcoming you and Councilman (Greg) Connell to the committee and will email you when we set up our next meeting.”

The judges have also come under fire on social media about a backlog of cases and the fact no jury trials have been held in a couple of years.

In an April story, Director of Municipal Court Kimberly Jozwiak said that when she and the judge began their jobs three years ago they discovered a backlog of 150,000 cases going back to the 1980s.

Since that time, Rodriguez, Kidd, court staff and city prosecutors have been going through all of the cases to determine if they can still be prosecuted or if a collection agency might be able to collect outstanding fines and fees, she said.

As of April roughly 53,000 cases had been cleared off their docket. Many of them have been deemed “uncollectable,” she said.

“Uncollectable is when a case is 15 years or older, without any activity that’s happened, the individual’s never shown up, they’ve not made their payment, they’ve not sent in their documentation to get their case dismissed,” Jozwiak said.

To prevent any future backlogs and to ensure justice is being carried out, Jozwiak said Rodriguez and Kidd had also begun issuing failure to appear in court warrants.

As for jury trials, municipal court has only seldomly held them because most defendants secure plea agreements from prosecutors, Jozwiak said. Secondly, bailiffs must be present at jury trials and they’ve had a difficult time finding anyone to fill the position.

Fortunately, most defendants awaiting trial are not accused of crimes, she said.

“It’s primarily traffic. I see a lot of people with a CDL driver’s license that request a jury trial because they only have two options, guilty or no contest and you pay with a conviction or not guilty and you’re acquitted and it doesn’t go on their driving record, which affects their CDL driver’s license,” Jozwiak said.

The council will also discuss Jones, City Secretary Norma Aguilar-Grimaldo and new City Manager John Beckmeyer in executive session.

During the open part of Tuesday’s meeting, the council is scheduled to discuss posting the job of an alternative municipal court judge, hosting the Texas Special Olympics in October 2024 and providing funds to the Amy Bell Sports Complex.

During the 3 p.m. work session, the council will hear from Synergy Sports about the sports complex and further discuss the possibility of the city providing its own fuel for city vehicles.