• August 4, 2020

2015 cut called mistake - Odessa American: Ector County

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2015 cut called mistake

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Posted: Sunday, May 3, 2020 4:00 am

Ector County Precinct 1 Commissioner Eddy Shelton, Precinct 3 Commissioner-elect Don Stringer and former city councilman Mike Gardner, Shelton’s July 14 Republican primary runoff opponent, gave mixed reviews to the county’s performance during the COVID-19 crisis.

Shelton gave the county an “A” but said officials should have done a better job of communicating with the public to quell fears while Gardner said he didn’t like “to play armchair quarterback,” but looking back, the court made a big mistake by eliminating its emergency management department in 2015.

Stringer was supportive, saying officials were under great pressure and “did the best they possibly could.”

“Without standing in their shoes and knowing a lot of the things they knew, I reserve the right to be real critical of what they’ve done,” Gardner said Thursday. “I will say that we have some work to do. It was not a good decision to get rid of the emergency management department to save $100,000.”

He referred to the commissioners’ 3-2 vote on Aug. 31 almost five years ago to terminate the department as a cost-saving move, leaving Ector as the Permian Basin’s only county without an emergency management department.

“This is a critical position,” then-County Judge Susan Redford contended before the vote. “The duties require that you work with all the local law enforcement and first responders, work with commissioners court and report directly to the county judge and that you make sure this community is prepared in case of a disaster.”

Shelton and Precinct 4 Commissioner Armando Rodriguez voted with Precinct 2 Commissioner Greg Simmons, who made the motion, against Redford and Precinct 3 Commissioner Dale Childers that day.

Faulting the county primarily for its failure to keep the public informed, Gardner said officials ended up imitating the city of Odessa’s often halting or non-existent release of public information. “Ever since we had the active shooter tragedy in August, the city wants to filter everything they give out through reverse osmosis,” he said.

“This was a hot potato that everybody took turns throwing to one another when what we needed was a point person. Fear is a terrible thing and information keeps that from happening. I’m confident that the leaders are doing all they can for the most part, but we need to keep the fear down as much as possible.

“There are a lot of scared people out there and you can’t blame them because this is a scary deal.”

Crediting the county for protecting the public, Shelton said, “Some areas were really good and some weren’t so good.

“The health department did a good job of contact tracing and organizing and allocating resources to map and locate potential areas,” he said. “When they find an incident, they search it and find out who might be affected. They were working hard to create a safe atmosphere for the community. We need to do a better job of communications with the media and public because of the fear factor. Never before had we been told to stay home and not go outside.”

Shelton would not comment on the court’s elimination of the emergency management department, which it voted to do.

Stringer said the county had done “the best job possible.

“This thing has taken the world by surprise and I think everyone is doing the absolute best they can.”

Shelton ended up calling himself the county “public information officer” during daily news briefings. Those briefings were never led by the county’s health department but instead by Medical Center Hospital and Odessa Regional Medical Center. Health Department Director Brandy Garcia attended some of the early calls but following a dust up with local media apparently refuses to join the Zoom meeting. Debi Hays never attended the calls and Childers did until quitting following the same dust up.

Shelton then started attending but quit after an editorial in the Odessa American criticized the county’s lack of transparency during the crisis but then started attending again.

“The media could have worked a little better with our health department if you had been more user-friendly. You could have been nice,” Shelton said.

Gardner said the county should start preparing now for the next emergency, whatever it might be. “I want to see us get to the point where we know how to handle emergencies and are not just looking at one another with nobody wanting to jump out and take the bull by the horns,” he said.

“Maybe we need to look at other counties. Some of them handled things pretty well. We got more information out of Midland. It seemed like they had a pretty smooth go of it. I’m afraid we live in a world where more and more things like this will be happening. Top to bottom, we need to learn from it and prepare ourselves,” Gardner said.

Referring to Odessa Chief of Police Mike Gerke and Ector County Sheriff Mike Griffis, Gardner said, “The police chief and sheriff may be the finest that the city and county have ever had.

“And we have great people in the fire department. We need to rely on these guys and put their expertise to work. We need drills to practice and we need a point person to be that spokesman. This is a good learning experience that we should take to heart and learn from. The big sin here would be not to learn from this and make it better.”

Shelton said the county’s emergency operations center at the Southside Senior Center “was a collaboration to get everything together and figure out how to make all this work.

“It was put together to draw resources and have them available for all the entities,” he said. “Now that we have the resources in place, we don’t need the EOC.”

Noting that the center was County Judge Debi Hays’ responsibility, Shelton said a key part of the resources was manpower to do contact tracing.

Stringer said one reason the EOC didn’t live up to its opening fanfare was that the COVID-19 crisis turned out to be not as bad as was first expected. “I spoke to a gentleman working over there who said the reason for their opening it in the first place was the fear that this thing was really going to explode,” he said.

“That never happened. We’re fortunate that there were not that many cases and therefore keeping it open would have been frivolous. I don’t know how busy the commissioners were. I’m sure that a lot of tasks needed to be covered and they did the best they could with the tools they had.”

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