The City of Odessa will pay more than $25,000 a month to a law firm that will serve as a temporary replacement for City Attorney Larry Long, who is set to retire at the end of this month following a sexual harassment complaint corroborated by the city’s human resources department.
On Tuesday, in a 3-2 vote, the Odessa City Council approved budgeting $130,000 for legal services provided by the Austin-based Bojorquez Law Firm, which specializes in municipal law and cites experience working as the city attorney for cities including Waco and Tyler.
The arrangement with the firm, paid a monthly retainer for an attorney to work in Odessa five days a week, can be terminated at anytime, said Darrell Wells, the head of the city’s human resources department. And Mayor David Turner said the city will post a job advertisement for the city attorney position in the coming weeks so the City Council can find a permanent replacement for Long.
Wells said hiring an outside firm to handle the city’s routine legal work is not uncommon in Texas. And two council members who serve on a personnel committee — District 3 Councilwoman Barbara Graff and District 5 Councilman Filiberto Gonzales — had recommended the approach. Both had said the city should move quickly to hire the firm so an attorney can begin work ahead of Long’s retirement for a smooth transition.
But Graff joined District 1 Councilman Malcolm Hamilton on Tuesday in arguing that the City Council should delay hiring the firm.
“To me we’ve got a lot of questions to answer and ask before we sign a contract,” Graff said, adding later that she wanted to meet behind closed doors first to talk to the attorney who will fill in for Long.
Hamilton, who missed a meeting last week where council members discussed hiring the firm, criticized what he described as a last-minute decision.
“Why didn’t we start the process the day that we understood that Larry would be moving on?” Hamilton.
Turner replied that the council had been working on the temporary replacement, a process that included vetting the firm, for about a month.
The City Council members who approved hiring the firm were District 2 Councilman Dewey Bryant, District 4 Councilman Mike Gardner and Gonzales.
“It’s not necessarily the individual that we are hiring,” Gonzales said. “We are hiring a firm that has many people on the team that actually can come and provide the service that we need.”
Wells said the specific attorney who will serve as the replacement has not been selected.
“It may very well be that more than one would end up being interviewed (so) that we can find the right fit,” Wells said.
Long’s departure follows a complaint filed last summer by a female legal assistant who accused him of sexually harassing her in ways including touching her hair against her will and staring at her. HR officials corroborated her account through an investigation that included interviews with additional employees.
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.
“If Larry Long is to remain in the employment of the Odessa City Council, greater discipline than the previous 30-day suspension should be meted out,” the HR officials wrote, along with other recommendations that also included changes to the way the legal department is managed.
But Gonzales and Graff dismissed the findings of an HR report. And the three remaining council members said later they were not provided the report for months. After the full City Council had it, they still never disciplined Long.
Instead, Long was allowed to retire.
Long announced his resignation on Nov. 28, telling reporters he wanted to work through the end of this month for better retirement benefits and because he had work he wanted to continue. Long has denied the allegations and repeatedly declined to discuss them.
Meanwhile, the total costs of resolving the sexual harassment complaint remain unclear. The city continues to fight the release of records showing any payment of taxpayer money as part of a settlement to the legal assistant, who had filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
City officials later reported resolving that case but refused to discuss the terms. The city’s outside counsel, Cal Hendrick, cited a confidentiality agreement between the city and the legal assistant in a pending appeal to the state Attorney General’s office that seeks to withhold records requested by the Odessa American.
Open government experts say any payment of public funds is clearly public information that the city should not be able to keep secret.
The City of Odessa, on Jan. 16, disclosed it had paid $23,300 for Hendrick’s work related to the sexual harassment complaint.
After Long’s resignation, the city projected paying about another $10,800 toward his retirement benefits through the state. Long’s salary, after the City Council awarded him a 3 percent raise in November, is about $201,500.
There will also be a retirement party for Long next week at City Hall.