You know we’ve been spending an awful lot of time lately reporting on some pretty questionable financial decisions at City Hall.
First, we reported Mayor Javier Joven violated the City Charter by hiring T2 Professional Consulting for $338,000 without running it past the rest of the council. More recently we revealed the city has wracked up tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees with seven law firms despite having its own legal department. We also reported earlier this week the city spent more than $14 million on overtime in 2021-2022.
Then, there’s the fact the council has also spent $115,500 on a compensation study, $15,000 for a sports complex feasibility study and $10,000 to have the employee handbook rewritten and the city’s personnel policies and procedures updated.
Why are our eyebrows raised? Because we’re seeing more than a little hypocrisy here.
When campaigning back in September 2020, Joven talked about making budget cuts. He said that while Odessa has expanded to many areas including entertainment, recreation and real estate, “We have got to get back to what we’re supposed to be doing and that is fire protection, public safety and water quality.”
He hasn’t changed his mind in the two-plus years since then, either.
In January, Joven discussed the need for a forensic audit, complaining he never received answers from former City Manager Michael Marrero and Assistant City Manager Cindy Muncy. “Are we being fiscally responsible?” he asked.
Then in March, while speaking on a local radio show, Joven bragged, “We’re making our city government smaller, leaner and more effective and more accountable.”
Council member Denise Swanner, who almost always votes the same way Joven does, listed “financially responsible” as one of the top qualities she’d like to see in our next city manager.
If those numbers listed above don’t shock you, maybe this one will:
The City of Odessa recently hired former Odessa Police Department Public Relations Manager Monica McDaniel to be the city’s director of communications.
A whopping $155,000!
Her annual car allowance?
To put a finer point on it, McDaniel’s predecessors, Maryann Cedillo and Devin Sanchez Benavides, made $76,000 and $77,000, respectively. They both had a car allowance of $3,000 a year, too.
Remember Devin Sanchez Benavides? She was the first City of Odessa employee targeted by Mayor Javier Joven. He accused her publicly of trying to make him look bad by not sending out a news release the mayor wrote about his swearing-in ceremony.
But, as is often the case with Joven, what he said wasn’t true.
The day Joven asked for the news release to be sent out, poor Devin was out of the office with her gravely ill father who actually died the very day Joven publicly disparaged her.
By the way, Joven claimed he wanted the news release distributed before the swearing-in ceremony so the media could attend but Devin foiled his plan by not releasing it until after the swearing-in. However, he didn’t provide the press release to the communications office until an hour and a half after the ceremony.
Joven would later say the swearing-in occurred at 6 p.m. but they were sworn in around 3 p.m.
But back to McDaniel and her whopping salary.
McDaniel is making more than double what her predecessors did despite the fact her job description is exactly the same as theirs.
It gets worse.
According to records obtained by the OA under the Texas Public Information Act, McDaniel makes just $10,000 less than what OPD Chief Michael Gerke and Director of Public Works Director Thomas Kerr were making in 2022, the staffers who are responsible for making our neighborhoods safe and our water safe and available.
She makes $6,000 more than former Parks and Recreation Director Steve Patton was making in 2022, $15,000 more than Presiding Municipal Court Judge Carlos Rodriguez and more than what Odessa Fire Department Assistant Chief Rodd Huber was earning at the time of his retirement. She is also making roughly $18,000 more than two other assistant fire chiefs were earning before they retired. (Although, to be fair, public safety employees were given raises in December 2022.)
McDaniel was making just under $65,000 when she left OPD on Oct. 28 and went over to the Ector County Independent School District for $93,000 a year.
While McDaniel is a wonderful and talented person with whom we enjoy interacting, is the role she plays really worth more than the above-mentioned people? Really?
Is her salary really indicative of our city leaders being fiscally responsible? Remember, several (including Joven) have already told us our taxes will go up again this year.
Here are some of her job responsibilities:
- Responsible for creating, implementing, and measuring success of: a comprehensive marketing, communications and public relations program that will enhance the City’s image and position within the local market and the general public, and facilitate internal and external communications: and all organization marketing, communications and public relations activities and materials including publications, media relations, client acquisition and so forth.
- Ensures articulation of City’s desired image and position, assures consistent communication of image and position throughout the organization, and assures communication of image and position to all constituencies, both internal and external.
- Develops novel approaches, methods and designs to positively promote the City’s image.
- Responsible for editorial direction, design, production and distribution of all organization publications.
- Coordinates media interest in the Organization and ensure regular contact with target media and appropriate response to media requests.
So, taxpayers are paying someone $155,000 a year to put a positive spin on everything our city leaders are doing. Check out the city’s Facebook page. It’s filled with nothing but photos of happy, smiling faces and feature stories.
We like those stories and think they are great, but we don’t like how it appears a good deal of her time is being spent posting photos of elected city officials smiling at functions or cozying up to firefighters for a selfie.
She has also tried to run interference for the mayor when he was being questioned by an OA reporter. That is not her job.
It is not her job to speak for the mayor or any other elected officials or even for the interim city manager.
Indeed, on Thursday, a day after a story ran in the OA about former Parks Chief Steve Patton and Deputy Director Matt Christman’s public urination debacle McDaniel wrote the “City of Odessa values its employees and understands personnel issues impact people’s lives and families. Although the City of Odessa provides the required information, we do not comment on cases. The City of Odessa truly cares about our employees and our citizens.”
The fact that they won’t comment on taxpayer-funded employees shows the opposite.
That is part of the job they were elected — or appointed — to do. Not the new high-priced spokeswoman who wants to put a good news spin on everything.
City Council members Steve Thompson and Gilbert Vasquez said they aren’t involved in the hiring and firing of staff, but they are both surprised at McDaniel’s salary.
“You know, we’re doing a zero-based budget and Gapi (Bernal) hires a communications director for $155,000 and gives her a $4,500 car allowance? Give me a break,” Thompson said. “Is this fiscally responsible? City Hall has gone wild.”
Both council members said they intend to ask Bernal to justify McDaniel’s salary during upcoming budget sessions.
McDaniel has volunteered to handle media interviews for Joven and the rest of the council, but Thompson and Vasquez said they’ve informed McDaniel they will speak for themselves.
Having a communications director to facilitate media interviews is desirable, but they shouldn’t speak on behalf of elected officials, the council members said.
“We as city people should be our own voice for our constituents and for our community,” Vasquez said.
While ECISD and Medical Center Hospital both have community relations staff, Superintendent Scott Muri and MCH CEO Russell Tippin are readily available for interviews. In fact, Muri has a weekly media telephone conference and Tippin never fails to answer questions.
The County doesn’t have a spokesperson but County Judge Dustin Fawcett and commissioners answer questions.
Taxpayers should not have to fund a position that is being used to try and make the wild shenanigans going on at City Hall by some elected officials look pretty.
It should be a job that hands out information to the public about all things City of Odessa.
While there will be those who will say we wouldn’t complain if Joven & Co. didn’t routinely ignore questions from the OA, the truth of the matter is even if we were guaranteed a weekly interview with city officials we still wouldn’t approve of this taxpayer-funded salary.