Are you getting tired of the Odessa American beating the same old drum about transparency and communication?
Well, we’re not going to stop.
There are not enough adjectives to describe just how important it is for voters in a Democratic society to be well-informed about what their elected officials are doing and why.
Last week, we told you of our concerns about the loss of several key financial department employees with budget season fast approaching.
This week, we learned through records obtained under the Texas Public Information Act, Melissa Looney resigned effective May 25.
Who’s Melissa Looney? The former manager of the city’s water treatment plant, a woman who worked for the city for nearly 14 years.
Her reasons? According to her notice, “Stress. Not enough employees, leaving more work for me. Pay for my employees. Under appreciated.”
We’re actually not surprised.
According to records obtained through the TPIA months ago, Looney sent up distress signals back in December.
She sent an email to her boss, Public Works Director Tom Kerr, informing him two of her employees were getting ready to resign and she was already four operators down.
“I am fixing to be in a super big bind,” Looney told Kerr.
“I am going to reach out to the temp agencies and see if we can just get some warm bodies in here to help cover the shifts,” she wrote.
She mentioned seeking help from some maintenance staff to cover some shifts, but added, “I am willing to bet this is going to get worse. I just wanted to let you know asap because it’s shocking to me that this is happening.”
Kerr went up the chain with Looney’s concerns. He told Human Resource Director Charles Hurst about the issue, along with three other people who ended up getting fired later — City Manager Michael Marrero, Assistant City Manager Cindy Muncy and Assistant City Manager Aaron Smith.
“We do not seem to be receiving any applications,” Kerr said. “This could become much more critical for us.”
Smith emailed Kerr to say he and Muncy had discussed using data from a recent compensation study to advertise the open positions.
What happened after that?
Well, we know our first responders received raises and other city employees did not.
Other than that, we’re in the dark.
Interim City Manager Agapito Bernal cancelled an interview with OA Reporter Kim Smith to discuss staffing issues in January.
Once she heard about Looney’s departure this week, she requested another interview with Bernal through the city’s $155,000-a-year spokeswoman Monica McDaniel.
“Please thank Ms. Smith for her interest. Our focus and motivation is and will always be to provide the citizens of Odessa with outstanding service.”
Yep. That’s right. When given the opportunity to assuage any concerns we might have about operations at the plant, Bernal failed to rise to the occasion.
According to the city’s website, the 24-hour plant receives 6.9 million gallons a day of wastewater that must be treated to specifications set by the state and federal government.
We don’t know about you, but we sure would like to know there are enough people — enough qualified people — on hand to make sure the job is being done properly. We really don’t want to wait for the state and feds to find any issues, either.
Obviously water is a vital issue to everyone.
Surely we don’t need to remind you the vast majority of the city was without water for 48 hours last June when a 60-year-old, 24-inch water line broke at 42nd and San Jacinto streets. The crisis, which forced residents to boil their water for five days, cost the city nearly $607,000.
Smith actually asked for a handful of other interviews this week as well.
She struck out.
Smith asked McDaniel if she could set up interviews with some key folks because she wanted to write stories about blight, code enforcement and the city’s housing rehabilitation and repair programs. She also wanted to speak with city officials about Joe Soto, who stood before the Odessa City Council May 23 and suggested the people responsible for handling open records requests and police communications are corrupt.
McDaniel’s response was to ask Smith to submit questions.
“I’ll work on getting them answered for you,” she said via email.
We dare you to find any local newspaper in the United States where city officials answered journalists’ questions via email.
You can’t tell us our city department heads, city officials, mayor and city council members are so overwhelmed with work they can pretend to be President Joe Biden in need of their own Karine Jean-Pierre.
And while we get blight and alleged corruption aren’t pleasant topics, the city received $430,000 in community development block grants this year to help residents rehab and repair their homes. That’s a good thing, right?
Face-to-face interviews are the norm and they’re the norm for a reason.
Sitting in front of somebody allows the reporter to develop rapport and trust with their sources, gauge their expressions and body language for caginess or sincerity and most importantly, ask follow up questions. In addition, ideally, the person being interviewed is the subject matter expert and it’s typical for them to provide information the reporter never even thought to ask.
If for no other reason, we would’ve thought Smith would be allowed to sit down for some interviews so McDaniel could continue to post all of those vitally crucial tidbits about National Donut Day, Daddy Daughter Dances and local businesses on Facebook.
By the way, we’re not saying we always enjoy face-to-face interviews.
In fact, Smith and Mayor Javier Joven got into yet another little dust-up a week or so ago.
Knowing Joven wouldn’t respond to emails concerning the city’s sudden about face on killing its recycling program, Smith approached Joven at an Operation Graduation press conference to ask a few questions.
Joven and Smith got into a debate about Joven’s tone when Smith asked a question to clarify a point the notoriously long-winded Joven was trying to make.
“I’m a Leo and I’m very passionate when I wind up speaking. What is passion, you look at as anger,” Joven said.
When Joven was told it can be intimidating to speak with someone who might “go off” on them or walk away at any moment, Joven walked away, falsely claiming Smith had accused him of threatening her.
Attempts to explain the difference between intimidating and threatening fell on deaf ears.
“Keep going. Keep going. Thank you. This is the last time we’ll have a conversation Ms. Smith,” he said.
In a follow-up email, Smith wrote Joven: “Perhaps you should have a long discussion with your new communications director about ways to effectively communicate” with real journalists who ask the tough questions.
“I think it would be of great benefit to the citizens of Odessa,” she wrote.
He didn’t bother to respond.
But don’t worry. The OA will continue to reach out to Joven and to the rest of the folks over at city hall.
As Oscar Wilde once said, “In America, the president reigns for four years and journalism governs forever and ever.”