OUR VIEW: City continues to spread misinformation

THE POINT: None of the courts — NONE — said the City of Odessa was in the right when they redacted information and when they delayed releasing police reports, some months after the events.

“In my opinion, the OA should find another side job that would benefit the City of Odessa.”

That is what Odessa City Councilmember Greg Connell said in response to the news the Texas Supreme Court declined to review the rulings in the Odessa American’s lawsuit against the City of Odessa.

Um, what?

What kind of a public official doesn’t know the role of newspapers in the free world? Newspapers exist to educate readers about what is going on in their communities and to hold public officials’ feet to the fire when they make questionable decisions. They don’t exist to be government spokespeople, let alone cheerleaders.

We guess we shouldn’t be surprised because there is a distinct lack of understanding across the board on the Odessa City Council.

Yet again, King Javier Joven and company insist on saying the City of Odessa has been vindicated in its fight with the OA.

Is the lawsuit over? Yes, so we suppose that is a victory of sorts in that no one will be spending any more money on this lengthy battle. However, that doesn’t mean the City has been vindicated.

Just a quick recap. The Odessa American sued the City because they were redacting information from police reports they shouldn’t have been and they were slower than they should have been in releasing those documents, which should be open to any member of the public.

A state district judge decided the lawsuit was a moot issue and dismissed it because the City had eventually released the documents. The Eastland Court of Appeals agreed and last week the Texas Supreme Court opted not to review the case.

None of the courts — NONE — said the City of Odessa was in the right when they redacted the information and when they delayed releasing the reports, some months after the events.

We kept taking the matter up the chain, so to speak, because we wanted the courts to call a spade a spade so the City would never again violate the Texas Public Information Act.

It had nothing to do with recouping attorneys’ fees, as Joven has claimed.

The City of Odessa has a history of abusing open meetings and open records laws. A 2017 landmark settlement between the OA and the City forced the City of Odessa to acknowledge violating open meetings laws and requires the municipality to keep audio recordings of all City Council executive sessions. To this day, those recordings can be reviewed by a judge if a member of the public suspects the City Council has held an illegal closed door executive session.

The City of Odessa is the only municipality in Texas required to record executive sessions. Other municipalities in Texas may either record executive sessions or simply take notes, but the Odessa City Council lost that option in 2017.

The most recent lawsuit between the City and the OA could have ended more than a year ago if the City had agreed to sign a consent judgment in this case.

That agreement, proposed by the OA, simply stated that the City would agree to abide by Texas open records laws, and it even cited the specific portions of the law. In exchange, the newspaper agreed to not pursue either an appeal of the costly lawsuit or reimbursement of its legal fees.

Again, legal fees had nothing to do with anything. Just more lies from Joven and Company.

Attorneys for the OA, John Bussian and Jeff Nobles, both said this latest legal wrangling affects not only the media, but also ordinary citizens when entities like the City of Odessa use gamesmanship to delay the release of public information.

Nobles said since 1976, Texas courts have always said that the basic information about local crimes and arrests must be immediately available to the public and the news media.

“But the City of Odessa has created a loophole to the law, by claiming it can delay until it has been sued, up to the moment a judge is about to sign an order requiring the City to comply with the law,” Nobles said. “The Eastland Court of Appeals said the City must comply with the law and the newspaper can sue again when the City delays. But the courts have not answered the real question created by the City’s loophole. It’s unclear how we can enforce the requirement of immediate disclosure if the City is allowed to delay until the very minute before the court rules, which may take years.”

The Texas Supreme Court decided not to look at the facts of the case. That’s true. You know what else is true? They don’t review 90% of the cases that are sent to them. (Can you imagine how swamped they’d be if they reviewed every case and how long it would take to get those decisions?)

We had to laugh out loud at a couple of lines in an editorial Joven wrote for his buddy Jeff Russell at Odessa Headlines. (The same editorial where he said we kept fighting to recoup our attorneys’ fees from the City.)

The first was this: “My promise to the citizens of Odessa is that I will keep a watchful eye on our departments to ensure public information is always turned over as quickly as possible….”

The second was this: “I believe good governance is not possible without a free press keeping the public informed of the facts, and the truth.”

We think we can successfully argue that “keeping the public informed of the facts” has definitely not been a priority for Joven and his buddies for the last couple of years.

In fact, just last week we twice sent City Manager John Beckmeyer a lengthy email asking a series of questions regarding attorneys’ fees. The response? Crickets. We also asked the city’s $155,000-a-year spokeswoman Monica McDaniel twice if we were going to get a response. Again, crickets.

Why were we asking about attorneys’ fees? Thanks to information obtained through the Texas Public Information Act, we learned the City of Odessa budgeted $100,000 for outside attorneys every year from 2020 through 2023.

Guess how much they spent in 2023?


Yes. That’s right. They blew their budget by more than $411,000 in the months following their unexplained termination of City Attorney Natasha Brooks and the ensuing voluntary departure of three assistant city attorneys.

You’re probably thinking, “Well, what’s the big deal? They’re saving money with the loss of those other attorneys.”

Here’s the thing, though. The city’s in-house attorneys budget has increased from $1,139,585 in FY19-20 to $1,463,222 in FY23-24, and they boosted their outside legal counsel budget to $500,000 for FY23-24.

Remember the role of newspapers? To be watchdogs? This is what Joven told a local radio station back in March about all of those departures from the city attorney’s office:

“We had a $1.2 million payroll within our legal department, 16 employees. We radically reduced it,” Joven said. “So the thing is, it’s promises made, promises kept. We’re making our city government smaller, leaner and more effective and more accountable.”

We wanted to know why Joven’s words don’t line up with the budget. Guess Beckmeyer’s silence on the matter means we’ll never know.

You’re also probably thinking, “The Odessa American actually has the gall to criticize the City when they’re responsible for those bills?”

Sure, our battle with the city contributed to the cost. But you know what else jacked up the bill?

  • The City Council’s decision to fire Brooks and City Manager Michael Marrero without explanation and then hiring attorneys to unsuccessfully argue the pair weren’t due their severance packages.
  • The City Council’s decision to hire outside counsel when they got sued for violating the Texas Open Meetings Act when they fired Brooks and Marrero.
  • Joven hiring T2 Professional Consulting to help find a new city manager only to hire the Ector County Republican Party’s good buddy, Beckmeyer. This action ultimately led to Assistant City Manager Aaron Smith’s firing and a whistleblower lawsuit. (Smith believes Joven violated the law when he hired T2.)
  • The council’s decision to hire outside counsel to investigate former Downtown Odessa Director Casey Hallmark’s allegations that Joven and Councilmembers Chris Haney and Mark Matta bullied her.
  • The council’s decision to hire outside counsel to re-investigate hazing allegations lodged by Odessa Fire Rescue cadets after two high-level officials had already been disciplined.
  • The council’s decision to hire outside counsel to investigate the city’s equipment services department after an employee got fired for tracking a police officer using GPS and another was terminated for giving his son pictures of an undercover police car.
  • The city’s decision to hire outside counsel every time the city is sued over an employee-related car wreck.

Records obtained by the OA show that as of Sept. 30, the city had three attorneys working in an office that used to have seven. Those attorneys are City Attorney Dan Jones and Assistant City Attorneys Eric Robicheaux and William Mason.

Jones is the guy who not once, not twice, but three times has caused the city to have to go back and re-vote on agenda items because they broke the Texas Open Meetings Act the first time around.

Once, when they fired Brooks and Marrero and named him interim city attorney. Once when they appointed Jones to his current position and again when they set the new tax rate.

He’s also the guy who keeps going to the Texas Attorney General’s Office asking for permission to withhold city documents from the OA and keeps being slapped down. (OFR hazing documents, Aaron Smith documents, crime scene unit bullying documents to name a few).

Oh, and by the way, Robicheaux and Mason replaced two attorneys who quit just months after being hired following the departure of Brooks & Co.

Mr. Connell, you want help from us? OK. We’ll give you and your compatriots a couple of helpful tips.

Perhaps, instead of hiring outside counsel for as much as $450 an hour, instead of following Jones’ advice and instead of running off your assistant city attorneys, the City ought to consider hiring competent less expensive attorneys who brown-bag their lunches every day.

Oh, did we forget to mention it? A recent Texas Public Information Act request has revealed that from September 2022 through September 2023, city officials have spent more than $2,500 going out to breakfast and lunch, primarily at The Barndoor and Casa Ortiz.

Those who go out to eat the most? Jones, Deputy City Manager Agapito Bernal, Joven and City Secretary Norma Grimald0-Aguilar.

If Joven really is as fiscally conservative as he claims to be, why is so much city business being conducted privately in restaurants with taxpayers footing the bill?

Here’s another piece of advice, this one for voters: When Joven says he’s all about “keeping the public informed of the facts, and the truth” remember all of those OA articles where he and his cronies didn’t respond to requests for interviews. Remember all those times the OA asked for emails between city staff and city council members only to be told they don’t exist. Remember all of those breakfasts and lunches when decisions were being made outside the public eye and remember all of those Texas Public Information Act requests the OA was forced to file because we couldn’t get the facts or the truth otherwise.