Contractor says mayor’s actions portray city in negative light

The Odessa City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to terminate the $650,000 contract of the landscape architect hired in November to design and oversee a downtown entertainment district.

Mayor Javier Joven accused KDC Associate partner Kelly Cook of “dropping the ball” by not seeking out Interim City Manager Agapito Bernal when a city department head told him in January to pause the project “until a political situation resolved itself.”

Cook insisted he followed the same chain of command he’s been following for more than 30 years and reached out to then Assistant City Manager Aaron Smith about the situation.

In an interview following the meeting, Cook said, “this entire process seems to be an internal issue within the city and KDC Associates has unfortunately been caught up in it.”

He also said KDC probably won’t be bidding on future city projects given the mayor’s treatment of him.

“We just think it was a missed opportunity. We’re sad to see the project terminated. We’re here to serve at the will of the City of Odessa and if they don’t want to move forward on the project, we understand,” Cook said. “We do think it’s not professional or helpful for the mayor to act in the way that he does with personnel or consultants. It portrays the city in a very negative light.”

Tuesday night’s decision didn’t happen in a vacuum either.

“I’ve already had numerous phone calls this morning from consulting teams, by and large, because of what happened last night. They’ve been keeping their eye on this. I think the city’s going to run into a situation where consulting firms pause before they automatically pursue City of Odessa work for the foreseeable future,” Cook said.

An email sent at noon Wednesday seeking an interview with Joven and Bernal was never acknowledged.


The council passed a $93 million certificate of obligation in August 2019 to pay for new fire stations, a police multipurpose building, an animal shelter, park improvements and the widening of Faudree Road. Seven million of the funds were put aside for downtown improvements.

Last fall, the city sent out a request for proposals for a downtown entertainment district and a committee comprised of several city employees recommended KDC Associates for the job after KDC put together a team of all local civil engineers and marketing, surveying and public relations experts.

Together that team, along with committee members, looked at the city’s overall master plan and agreed that when it came to implementing the downtown portion of the plan, the city’s $7 million would best be spent focusing on a two-block section of Jackson Avenue.

KDC chose Jackson Avenue over Texas Avenue, at least in part, because the two-year project would have a detrimental impact on traffic and parking along Texas Avenue and Jackson Avenue is closer to the Marriott and Odessa College’s new plaza.

On Nov. 8, the council voted 4-3 to hire KDC Associates to implement their plan, with Joven and Council members Mark Matta and Denise Swanner objecting. The trio were not pleased with the amount of the contract and the size of the plan.

Joven complained bitterly about the delays considering when the certificates were issued, saying he thought construction should have begun on the district years ago, following the approval of the master plan.

Since that November vote, three new council members were elected and all but one of the committee members have left the city.

Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone Chairman Craig Stoker is the only remaining member of the committee.

The other committee members were Assistant City Manager Phillip Urrutia, City Manager Michael Marrero, Downtown Odessa Executive Director Casey Hallmark, Traffic Operations Superintendent Hal Feldman and Parks and Recreation Director Steve Patton.

During Tuesday night’s meeting, Cook said Hallmark, who was heading up the project, asked him to pause work “until a political situation resolved itself.” He told Joven he thought it had something to do with her position with the city.

At that point, she’d already accused Joven, Matta and Council member Chris Hanie of bullying her. She ended up resigning Jan. 30.

Attempts to reconnect

Cook told Joven that throughout the month of February, he repeatedly reached out to Smith and Hallmark’s replacement, Elizabeth Prieto, to find out if work could resume.

Cook said he and Prieto were working to schedule a meeting for this week when he received a letter from City Attorney Dan Jones notifying him the project would be on the May 9 agenda.

Among the questions included in the email to city officials were:

  • Why was KDC’s contract cancelled?
  • Was it because Kelly Cook didn’t follow the chain of command, thus creating delays?
  • Was it because the new council doesn’t like KDC’s focus on Jackson Avenue?
  • Was it because the council has other priorities besides revitalizing downtown?
  • Was it because the city is interested investigating ways to re-direct the certificates of obligation to the sports complex or other projects? Was it for some other reason?
  • Once KDC’s contract is cancelled, what comes next?
  • Will the city be going out to bid again for a downtown entertainment district?
  • If so, will the city amend its RFP? How so?
  • If the city is researching ways to re-direct the certificates of obligation, why?
  • Do you believe other areas of Odessa need to be revitalized or developed further?
  • If Cook was in error for not reaching out to Mr. Bernal, shouldn’t Aaron Smith or Elizabeth Prieto have informed him of that fact?

According to Cook, he’d written 22 emails to the city asking for direction over an 18-week period. Is the city at all worried other firms might now be reluctant to bid on city projects given what happened last night? If not, why not?

Over the next several minutes, Joven, Cook and Swanner got into a back and forth about why Cook thought Hallmark had the authority to halt the project and why Cook reached out to Smith (who was fired by Bernal in March) and not Bernal.

To assume Smith was the correct person to contact and to “not even consult or even to call to this office or any of these members of the council is a poor judgment,” Joven said.

KDC has done more than 40 projects for the city over the last 30-plus years and he followed the same protocol he’s always followed, Cook said.

“I did it the old school way. If I had contacted the mayor on a situation like this before, my firm would have been fired,” Cook said.

“I’m not the old mayor. You just put me in that boat and that’s where you dropped the ball,” Joven said angrily. “In this situation you should have gone to that director’s immediate supervisor and that’s the city manager and that is that man sitting right there. But you didn’t do that.”

Cook insisted he’s always been instructed to approach the assistant city manager before the city manager.

“Who instructed you?” Joven asked.

“The city managers over the past four decades,” Cook said.

“And that’s why none of them are here,” Joven retorted.

Cook ended the conversation by saying 94% of KDC’s projects over the years have come in under budget and on time.

“There’s not another consulting firm in western Texas that can do that,” Cook said.

Joven thanked him and then called for a vote on ending KDC’s contract in 30 days.

After the meeting

On Wednesday morning, Cook said he was not surprised by the council’s vote.

“We had seen the writing on the wall. Shortly after this project was awarded, we started hearing rumors that the current political group with the city did not want to spend the money on downtown. So we saw this coming,” Cook said. “That prompted us to start reaching out. I think in the 18 weeks since Jan. 11, we have 22 emails asking for directions to two different directors as well as the assistant city manager.”

KDC has worked in 47 cities and in each case, they’ve been told to reach out to department heads or directors first and then the assistant city manager, he said.

“Our attempts to contact the people supervising the project are exactly in line with the way that we have always worked with the City of Odessa through four different city managers and I don’t know how many councils. You follow the chain of command. We would never dare as a consulting firm, any consulting firm, would never dare bypass that chain of command in the city,” Cook said.

The reality is, however, that KDC wasn’t fired because of the chain of command issue, Cook said.

“They have no problem with KDC. They had a problem with spending $6.5 million in downtown. I think that’s everybody’s understanding,” Cook said. “People will probably assume I heard that from Casey, but I heard that from multiple sources, both from people who work for the city and political players within the city. I think it simply boiled down to they didn’t want to spend that money there.”

Cook said the city council voted to terminate KDC’s contract despite the fact KDC was going to design not only the festival street, but its arteries, for the same price. Engineers and surveyors would have come in and provided the city a detailed above and below ground survey of all of the city’s utilities, curb locations and light poles.

“This kind of would have been the building block for future downtown development,” Cook said. “”They would have been one step ahead of the game, they already would have saved money and it would have made any future decisions much faster and much more fluid.”

The committee and KDC agreed focusing on developing the two-block area made sense over spreading the money over a larger section of downtown, Cook said.

We told the committee, “if we’re going to do this and spend that money let’s make it a catalyst for future projects that the citizens get excited about, the businesses get excited about and that can be built upon in the future because otherwise, that money’s gonna get spent. People are going to drive downtown, take a look at it and they’re not going to see where the money was spent,” Cook said.

Other reactions

Craig Stoker, the one remaining downtown committee member, said the city originally sought bids for the design project because city staff said they were too busy to take on the project themselves.

Ultimately, he thinks the cost of KDC’s contract proved to be a big stumbling block. He also believes people are frustrated construction has yet to begin.

Stoker, too, has heard the rumors the city may be trying to find a way to divert the downtown money to the proposed sports complex.

“I think it would be a great project. I think the city needs a complex like that. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity for economic development that follows a sports complex complex like that and it would lead to a rise in the hotel occupancy tax, which can then be used to fund projects like a festival street. It is not a loser situation. I think anything we do is great,” Stoker said.

“I just want to see progress. It’s just unfortunate that since I started paying attention in 2016, 2017 there just has not been a whole lot of progress. Let’s do these things. We’ve been talking about it long enough,” Stoker said.

Hallmark’s explanation

Hallmark said Tuesday she was trying to do the right thing when she asked Cook to pause the project because Marrero had just been fired, she knew she’d be leaving the city and there were three new council members. She wanted Bernal, her replacement, Elizabeth Prieto, and the new council members to have time to familiarize themselves with the project.

She also knew Joven remains adamantly opposed to KDC and their vision.

“He’s not a believer in downtown. He’s not a supporter of downtown,” she said.

She’s heard people think she intentionally tried to sabotage the project, but that’s not true, Hallmark said.

“I thought it was best for all parties involved to just put a pin in it and reevaluate it whenever everybody got settled and clear heads could prevail,” Hallmark said. “It was not a negative thing. It was not in any way shape, or form to derail the project. I thought I was looking out for all parties, including the city that I love so much. It’s just wild that this is the new narrative.”

She believes Cook was treated poorly by the mayor and is “mortified” given how much he’s done for the city.

“It’s not a good look for our city and, you know, everybody’s watching and other contractors are watching and whenever somebody goes out and gets lambasted by our city council and our mayor that doesn’t make other contractors want to step up to the plate,” Hallmark said.