OUR VIEW: City’s issues keep coming to light

THE POINT: City was (again) forced to hand over public records by the Attorney General’s office.

Here’s something you won’t see on the City of Odessa’s Facebook page: The Odessa American won not just one, but two legal battles with the City late last week.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office ruled the City had to turn over a slew of documents the City’s legal department didn’t want to release. In a nutshell, the AG’s Office said none of the reasons cited by the City for withholding the information back in December and January were legitimate.

What was the City trying to hide? The results of more than a dozen human resource complaints filed by City of Odessa employees and details of an investigation into injuries sustained by Odessa Fire Rescue cadets last August.

Were there any bombshells contained within those documents? Nope, but that’s perfectly OK with us. In fact, we’re happy about it. But aren’t you glad we asked for them?

By the way, we continue to wait for the city to hand over a complaint made against a current high ranking Parks and Rec employee. We’ll keep you posted on that issue.

These complaints/issues are important and it is important for us to ask to see the documents and not simply take any “official” explanations the City sends out.

Ask yourself this: What if? What if someone had made serious could-get-you-fired-or-sued allegations against an elected official, a department head, a colleague? What if the Odessa American wasn’t around to perform some good ‘ole watchdog journalism? How would you know if someone was canned for financial wrong-doing, sexual harassment, racial discrimination?

Yes, we’re beating that drum again because recent events have made it clear we need to beat it again and again and again.

Many of the members on the current city council ran on a platform promising transparency and accountability. More recently, Mayor Javier Joven & Co. wholeheartedly agreed with T2 Professional Consulting’s assessment that the City needs to improve its internal and external communication skills.

Which is why we have to ask why Joven, the majority of the council and Interim City Manager Agapito Bernal continue to dodge interviews.

On March 22, we sent Bernal, Joven, the council and Interim City Attorney Dan Jones more than a dozen questions about the city hiring seven outside law firms at a cost of $175-$450 an hour to handle matters normally handled by City legal staff, who earn considerably less.

We sincerely wanted to give them the opportunity to offer us – and their constituents – a reasonable explanation. We’re not attorneys and we don’t work in government. Surely, we thought, there was some good reason. We just wanted to know what it was.

City council members Steve Thompson and Gilbert Vasquez said those hiring decisions are outside their purview. Bernal, Joven, Jones and the other council members?

They said nothing.

And then last week, two long-time employees, Parks and Recreation Director Steve Patton and Streets Director Hal Feldman, announced they were joining more than a dozen other veterans who have left the City since last Fall.

Bernal, Joven and the council were asked the following:

Are you concerned about the loss of all of those years of experience? Are you concerned about the sheer number of people who have retired/resigned in recent months, or do you believe these numbers are in line with past years’ numbers? What would you like to say about those who will be filling their shoes? What would you like to say about the fact that city Public Works Director Tom Kerr nearly retired after becoming frustrated during a council meeting, and other city employees have described the atmosphere at the city as “toxic”?

As always, Thompson and Vasquez were quick to respond. Yes, they said, they are concerned about the loss of institutional knowledge.

Joven and the rest of the council, as always, did not respond.

The city’s new communication director, Monica McDaniel, emailed a statement on behalf of Bernal that could be cut and pasted into every story about every retiree from here to eternity.

It could also be used as a sales pitch to attract new employees. Gee, maybe T2 will use it in the brochure they’re creating to attract a new city manager.

“We are so grateful to those who have served our city and its citizens for decades. It’s evident the City of Odessa is a place where you can have a successful career, make a difference in our community and then retire and enjoy your golden years.”

As for the questions we asked? Crickets.

The very next day, when we learned Feldman had resigned, we sent the same set of questions to the same people. Again, no response.

When Bernal was spotted at a city ribbon cutting event that afternoon, he was asked if we could expect a response. His reply? “I don’t know. I’ll have to check with Monica.”

We’re sorry. The top non-elected official at the City of Odessa has to check with a person hired less than a month ago what he can/should say?

We suspect that what he couldn’t say was that he had to check with Joven first and if Joven gave him a green light he’d have to meet with McDaniel to craft another generic, evasive response.

In any event, we never heard back from Bernal.

We did get a response Friday night on another story we were working on, though.

If you can call it that.

According to records obtained under the Texas Public Information Act, the OA has learned the City spent more than $6.5 million on overtime in 2021 and just under $8 million in 2022. The records show the police department and fire department accounted for most of the OT.

On Monday morning we asked Bernal, Gerke, Interim OFR Interim Chief Jason Cotton and Joven for a sit-down interview either en masse or individually, at their convenience.

We even gave them the questions in advance!

Are there national standards set when it comes to OT for cities or first-responders? What are they? How would you describe the numbers below? Acceptable? Typical? Concerning? How difficult is it during the annual budget process to determine what your budget should be when you can’t possibly know how many recruits you’ll hire or how many officers/firefighters will leave? Has OT come up in the discussions with T2? How do they recommend it be addressed?

What determines who gets OT? In other words, do most officers and firefighters volunteer for it or is it assigned? In addition, I’d like your input on whether too much OT can negatively impact first-responders and how that might be. Is it different for OFR than OPD because of the way the shifts work?

We didn’t hear back from anyone all day Monday or Tuesday.

On Tuesday night before the council meeting Gerke said he was waiting for Bernal’s approval to speak with a reporter. The Chief of Police, an educated and dedicated City employee for years, has to check with someone else to see if he can speak? Astonishing. But Joven has insisted the atmosphere isn’t toxic at City Hall.

Wednesday went by without any word and when Thursday morning rolled around, the same reporter texted McDaniel to see if an interview could be scheduled for that day or the next.

McDaniel “liked” the text.

On Friday at 5:25 p.m., McDaniel sent the following text message: “Public safety is of the upmost (sic) importance to the City of Odessa. While the entire community is strained for resources, we labor through these obstacles to serve our citizens. We are Odessa Strong!”

When asked to confirm the message meant no interviews, McDaniel responded, “They have been so swamped. They’re not going to be able to.”

However, we just have to point out Joven isn’t so swamped he can’t give interviews about the Downtown Odessa Easter Egg Hunt and his recommittment to water conservation.

That’s right. In an email sent out Tuesday morning, McDaniel offered to coordinate media interviews on those topics.

Hmmm. What do YOU think is more important? Easter Eggs or the city budget?

So, here we are.

The City Council that ran on transparency and accountability has yet again left us hanging.

We, and you, are left to guess:

  • Why we’re paying tens of thousands of dollars for expensive lawyers
  • If we need to be worried about hundreds of years of combined experience walking out the door
  • Why we’re paying millions in overtime salaries
  • If we should be worried about the health and safety of our first responders and the public they serve

In fact, we think everyone ought to be wondering something else: Who’s actually running the show?

But we doubt they’d answer that question if put to them.

To borrow a phrase – the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Don’t worry, though, we admit we’re a little crazy.

We’re going to continue to ask the hard questions

We’ll say it again. We’re obligated to.