The point: A number of public information requests from the Odessa American to the City of Odessa detail troubling information about secret maneuvers to keep the public business out of public scrutiny and other issues.
Since Odessa City Manager Michael Marrero and City Attorney Natasha Brooks were fired by the Odessa City Council to much public outrage (actually they were fired twice, but more on that later) the OA has sought a number of documents from the City through the Texas Public Information Act.
It’s a treasure trove of nonsense and some items that should concern all Odessans and also many, many items that show just how dysfunctional our fair city can be. Just a few highlights:
This is complicated but here goes. Former Assistant City Manager Cindy Muncy, who resigned just one week after Marrero and Brooks were fired the first time in December, took an extraordinary step when Odessa Mayor Javier Joven requested a $50,000 down payment check for services from T2 Professional Consulting out of Fort Worth.
Muncy asked Interim City Attorney Dan Jones and Interim City Manager Agapito Bernal to acknowledge with their signatures they approved of the action, which was in apparent violation of city policy and procedures for professional service agreements.
In the document Muncy noted non-budgeted items of $50,000 or more must be voted on by the Council before the contract is executed and the total cost of the contract was $338,000 per year. She noted for the record that Jones said it was his legal opinion the procedures they followed to obtain the contract were acceptable.
Click here to view the Muncy document: tinyurl.com/39ax36ka
View the T2 contract here: tinyurl.com/mrxtnzd6
ANY AND ALL
The T2 contract was essentially a backdoor deal by Joven. Remember Joven? He ran on ferreting out wrong-doing and championing transparency. Documents uncovered in the public information requests show Jones found a Texas Attorney General’s opinion from 1992. In the margins of a copy of the opinion, Jones wrote notes outlining how he and Joven could justify negotiating and executing the contract without consulting other council members and while out of the public eye.
View the 1992 AG document here: tinyurl.com/4cpf2cns
Jones indicated T2 will offer the city professional services and therefore the city didn’t have to put out a request for bids or proposals. But according to Govt. Code Sec. 2254.002, professional services include accounting, architecture, medicine, optometry, professional engineering and a few other things, none of which seem applicable to T2, which was hired to analyze all the positions within the city and to train Bernal. Although the contract doesn’t explicitly say so, Joven swears T2 will aid in the search for a new city manager.
When Councilman Steve Thompson called Joven on the carpet about the agreement during a Jan. 3 meeting, Jones was quick to jump in and declare that by including the language “any and all” on the motions to evaluate and terminate the appointments of Marrero and Brooks and to begin the search process for their replacements, the City of Odessa could “go to the top of the Empire State Building” and shout out that the jobs were open and that would be OK. Likewise, Jones and Joven maintained the words “any and all” also gave the mayor the authority to negotiate and execute the contract with T2.
Hear the discussion between Joven and Thompson about T2 and the city charter here: tinyurl.com/4pr75kju
Jones won’t win any Academy Awards for his acting during the meeting with a seemingly planned “settle down gentlemen” when Thompson questioned the mayor, and Joven accused Thompson of putting words in his mouth.
Jones was so convinced of the rightfulness of his actions he apparently sought the opinion of outside counsel on the matter after the fact. Four days before firing Brooks and Marrero for the second time, attorney Jeff Whitfield, who charges the city $450 an hour, emailed Jones case precedent he thought made it clear the city could do “anything ‘rationally related’ ” to the termination of Brooks and Marrero and to seek their replacements.
Now back to the whole had-to-fire-them-twice issue. During the Dec. 13 meeting in which Marrero and Brooks were originally fired, the mayor did not allow public comment before the vote, even though it was on the agenda. Local attorney Gaven Norris filed a lawsuit and essentially forced a second vote on the firing on Jan. 9.
Read the story on the second firing here: tinyurl.com/5brztcvz
This leads us to question whether Joven and Jones now believe they can use that phrase, “any and all,” to take any action they want with impunity. Only Thompson bothered to truly question the action on the contract. Councilman Gilbert Vasquez asked a few questions but the others just sat there. Some might have even smirked a time or two. It doesn’t seem as if most of our city council members are very concerned about open government.
MORE ON T2
Although Joven has repeatedly bragged T2 has more than 125 years of combined experience, the OA has been unable to find a single news story anywhere about T2 doing anything for anybody. Michael Wilson, the owner of T2, claimed in an email to the OA that 100 different private and public organizations have used the company’s services, including some “Tier One” cities. The less than 2-year-old company is run out of a residence in Fort Worth.
In the same email, Wilson touted the accomplishments of his company, but declined to provide specific client names citing confidentiality.
The confidentiality issue gives us pause. The contract with the City of Odessa actually states all reports and correspondence should be sent to Joven either at his private email address jovenformayor.com or to City Hall.
Why is that? Why the need for such secrecy from folks who ran on how transparent they were going to be?
Curiously enough, to this very date, public records requests have failed to find any emails about T2 between the Mayor, council and T2 officials, with the exception of one setting up a Jan. 11 lunch meeting.
We find that curious. According to the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA), these elected officials are required to maintain all city-related correspondences – even those sent and received from their personal devices and email accounts – just in the event someone requests them through the TPIA.
What we do know is the contract was executed less than 24 hours after Marrero and Brooks were fired the first time, which is clear evidence the tag team of Jones and Joven had the contract ready.
In recent weeks many citizens have stood before the dais to complain about “King” Joven.
They’re not alone in believing Joven has swerved wildly outside his lane.
During a Jan. 3 City workshop meeting, Thompson and Joven got into a heated exchange about the T2 contract and Thompson accused him of over-reaching.
Hear the meeting clip here: tinyurl.com/4pr75kju
During the exchange, Thompson insisted the City of Odessa’s charter states Odessa is supposed to have a council/city manager form of government, one in which the city manager directs the day-to-day operations (all of them) and the council sets policy.
Joven fired back that was what the City’s form of government “used to be.”
Does that sound like Joven doesn’t want to be in charge of everything that goes on at city hall? We know from the thousands of documents we obtained through the TPIA that Joven directed the city secretary to obtain all of the emails that were exchanged between Police Chief Mike Gerke, Marrero, Utilities Director Tom Kerr and a handful of others during the week City residents lost water due to a water line break at 42nd and San Jacinto streets.
The question is why would that be necessary?
The IT department responded to the city secretary by saying it was illegal to hand them over “without the proper documentation/protocol.” The head of the department said he had to have “explicit and specific documented instructions from the city manager and legal department.”
It seems like Joven wants to run the show, in clear violation of the city charter. And, he clearly wants to do it behind closed doors where the public doesn’t get to hear about tiny little matters like spending $338,000 for a contract with a firm that doesn’t have much of a documented history.
We also are concerned that during the same Jan. 3 meeting, the mayor insisted nothing was “being hidden” about the T2 contract. He even chided city employees for “working in cahoots with the media.” He then said it was OK, but backtracked and complained again about “collusion.”
Perhaps he needs a dictionary. Isn’t collusion exactly what he was doing with the T2 contract?
He even stumbles during that meeting when pressed about how much T2 had already been paid when he knew $50,000 had been paid.
SPEAKING OF COLLUSION
We discovered more than a few city-related email chains that included either local GOP party boss Tisha Crow or conservative political activist Jeff Russell, who until the regime change on the council, were not on any city boards (Russell was kicked off but is back on the Odessa Development Corp.). It was the local GOP party’s executive committee — controlled by Crow — that took the highly unusual step of endorsing Joven and current council members Denise Swanner and Mark Matta in the 2020 election. City elections have always been considered non-partisan. Not anymore, thanks to Crow and her crew.
In addition, two months before Russell was re-appointed to the ODC and two months before Mikky Navarrete was appointed to the ODC board, they, Joven, ODC Chairman Kris Crow, Matta and Swanner were discussing a 2020 ODC resolution via email.
Why is that? Why do certain council members and the mayor turn to these folks for advice? Why are they so willing to speak with Tisha Crow and Russell about city business but not answer questions from constituents and legitimate news media outlets? Why is Russell — a big time Joven supporter — in the emails, facilitating meetings between city officials and others? They have been asked repeatedly to explain themselves on many issues including the firings and the T2 contract.
One reason may be that Russell is the publisher of Odessa Headlines, an online spin machine that only reports the side of things that makes the mayor and Councilmembers Swanner and Matta look good.
An email from Russell may explain another aspect of the coziness between all of these players.
In an email thread about a controversial Taylor, TX, Christmas parade, Russell, who has twice run for local office unsuccessfully, wrote to Matta, Swanner and Joven:
View the Jeff Russell email here: tinyurl.com/uj6dw5h
“This is unreal but shows, in vivid colors, what we’re fighting for – Christian conservatives must work for control of every level of govt because the crazy, anti-God leftists are striving for control.”
Read a news story about the parade issue in Taylor: tinyurl.com/2p8d77vv
The entire council and Joven have been taken to task by attorney Norris several times. He mocked them by telling them they should hire him as a municipal judge because he is “completely unqualified” and that seems to be what they do. He was making reference to both interims, Jones and Bernal.
Bernal, the mayor has bragged, has worked for the city for years. It isn’t clear if he has the certifications held by city managers who typically hold master’s degrees in public administration or related fields. Bernal’s 2006 application to the City of Odessa shows he completed an associate’s at Midland College and held animal control positions in Midland and Mansfield. Prior to becoming the interim city manager he headed up Odessa’s billing and collection department.
Jones may have a law degree but he has been sanctioned by a state district judge for missteps that cost both Jones and the City of Odessa money. Jones was also reprimanded by his supervisor at the City for gossiping and harassment. He didn’t dispute the allegations in his reprimand. He simply wrote “I’ve recently had a lapse in judgment. I apologize for my failures. I will improve greatly.” That reprimand was dated 10/28/21.
View the Jones reprimand here: tinyurl.com/frj2m6ws
Oddly enough, he replaced the very boss who reprimanded him. Or perhaps it’s not odd at all.
We also find it curious Swanner has such a problem with Brooks. Swanner recently reported Brooks to the Texas Bar accusing her of backdating affidavits. If true, that is certainly an issue and should not be tolerated. But, come on, Jones appears to have far more issues than that.
We question why the council would take advice from Jones on any legal matters. We also question why Jones would willingly help hide public information about a contract and advise them that it is OK to use the silly “any and all” excuse to execute the contract.
Seriously, if T2 is so great why can’t it be discussed and voted on properly as the City’s own rules state it should be?
MORE UNQUALIFIED FOLKS
Each elected official should get to appoint to boards and commissions the people they want. We don’t dispute that.
But placing Tisha Crow on the Downtown Odessa board and booting Sondra Eoff off is a real head scratcher. The same goes for tossing Norris off the compliance committee of the ODC and replacing him with Joven supporter and political gadfly Tim Harry.
Maybe Norris is correct. Obviously Eoff is a well-liked philanthropist who is educated and competent and serves on many charities and boards. And, Crow? Well, other than her clique of supporters at the currently divided local GOP headquarters, we aren’t sure how widely respected she is.
And Harry? Please. Norris is a respected attorney who gives back to this community. We guess that committee doesn’t need someone with a law degree looking over things. Harry is known locally for his often outrageous social media attacks on anyone who doesn’t agree with him and “The Squad” (which is what city employees often call Joven, Matta and Swanner).
While on the topic of Harry’s social media shenanigans, we find it interesting the ODC declined to replace Norris with Jamie Tisdale because of her Odessa Accountability Project Facebook group.
But apparently everyone is OK with Harry’s posts on Facebook and also with Russell’s Odessa Headlines website, which appears to exist to simply echo talking points of The Squad and to try and find anyone at all who could unseat State Rep. Brooks Landgraf. Their last candidate (Casey Gray) only lost by a whopping 80 percent.
The Tisdale nomination likely would have passed, but it appears to us as though it was only made to pretend to include Tisdale in the group when all along they really only wanted Crow and Harry.
Interestingly, Harry’s social media antics have led Norris to send him a cease and desist letter. Harry has posted that Norris left clients in the lurch and was held in contempt for his temper. Norris disputes those allegations.
Read the letter from Norris to Harry here: tinyurl.com/54cykkzw
SPEAKING OF CONTEMPT
It’s our opinion some members of the current council hold Odessans in contempt. They refuse to entertain any views in opposition to their own, reasonably expressed or not.
We will give it to Swanner who did show up to a Friday meeting with Odessan Ronnie Lewis.
Lewis often posts about council matters on Facebook and last week posted questions on the OA’s Facebook page. Swanner declined to answer on the Facebook page, which Lewis said he considers an open forum. She said she preferred to meet in person. When Swanner found out the OA was coming to the meeting, she backed out but then showed up.
Lewis really just wanted Swanner to answer questions in what he felt was a public forum and he didn’t want private answers to public questions. Lewis thinks many other Odessans want answers as well.
To put it mildly, the Odessa City Council and city staff have a lot on their plate. Aging and leaky pipes, underpaid employees and failing roads immediately come to mind.
Odessa isn’t alone in that regard. Far from it.
But, instead of tackling the issues head-on, instead of sitting at the table together to come up with common sense solutions, too many of our city council members are more interested in playing games and pursuing their own agendas.
Not only are they getting us into unneeded and expensive litigation but they are also spending money on human resource investigations and on an Odessa Fire & Rescue investigation that has already been completed.
Read the OFR story here: tinyurl.com/3zr3969r
Read about the Hallmark resignation/investigation here: tinyurl.com/3a5k43eb
We believe the better educated people are regarding the issues that affect their communities, the better off those communities are. But if secretive deals like the T2 contract and cloaked communications continue, how well off are we?
Odessa has a sad history of councilmembers having a self-serving agenda, acting silly and practicing cronyism. We are seeing that play out again on our current council.
Joven and his gang claim they want a transparent, accountable city government. It seems that by their actions, they are more hell-bent on creating a banana republic.
Be better. Do better. Come out in the light and do the public business where it is supposed to be done. In the public.