The Odessa City Council will consider hiring an outside law firm to fill in as the full-time city attorney after the retirement of Larry Long, who was allowed to retire at the end of this month following a sexual harassment complaint corroborated by the city’s human resources department.
The city’s latest head of human resources, Darrell Wells, said the firm would charge the city about $225 per hour and an attorney would work in Odessa five days a week. Wells said that fee works out to about what the city pays Long, because it does not include benefits. Long’s annual salary is about $201,500.
“In terms of cost, there’s really not that much difference,” Wells said during the City Council’s finance committee meeting on Tuesday. “Mr. Long is already handsomely paid.”
Hiring an outside firm to handle the city’s routine legal work is not uncommon in Texas, Wells said. The firm would also manage staff of the city’s legal department.
Two council members who serve on a personnel committee — District 3 Councilwoman Barbara Graff and District 5 Councilman Filiberto Gonzales — had recommended the approach.
“We want to keep everything that’s been going moving forward, and if we have that void, if we have somebody doing it part time, I don’t think we would have that confidence in that department, so we wanted to make sure that we didn’t short change it,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales and Graff had also dismissed the finding of an HR report on the sexual harassment complaint, filed by a female legal assistant to Long in the summer. She had accused Long of harassing her in ways such as touching her hair against her will and staring at her, behavior that HR corroborated.
The July 24 HR report also pointed to behavior by Long such as sitting too close to her and calling his employees pet names. One of the authors of that report, HR Director Bonita Hall, who later resigned, also noted it was repeated behavior by Long from another sexual harassment case in 2007 that resulted in a month-long unpaid suspension.
The three remaining council members said they were not provided the HR report for months. But Long was still never disciplined by the City Council as the report recommended.
Instead, he announced his resignation on Nov. 28, telling reporters he wanted to work through his next birthday for better retirement benefits and because he has work he wanted to continue. Long has denied the allegations and repeatedly declined to discuss them.
The City of Odessa has disclosed paying $23,300 to an outside law firm for work on the sexual harassment complaint but the total costs of resolving the sexual harassment case remain unclear as the city continues to fight the release of records showing any payment of taxpayer money as part of a settlement.
On Tuesday, Graff and District 2 Councilman Dewey Bryant said they wanted the interim lawyer to start working with Long before his resignation takes effect on Feb. 28 to smooth the transition.
Wells described the temporary appointment as offering “a breather: some time to consider your options” in appointing a permanent replacement. He said the firm specializes in municipal law and its attorneys have experience working as the city attorney for city’s including Waco and Tyler.
Mayor David Turner said a job advertisement for the city attorney position should be posted in the coming weeks. The council is expected to consider approving the temporary arrangement on Tuesday.