OUR VIEW: More long-time city staffers are leaving
May 26—Well, the good news for the City of Odessa is the number of people leaving the city voluntarily or otherwise has fallen from 20 in January to 13 last month.
The bad news is more key players have either left or are on their way out.
Director of Finance Larry Fry is retiring, and his last day is May 31. In his letter to Interim City Manager Agapito Bernal, Fry wrote, "it has gotten to that point in life where there are other responsibilities that I need to focus on."
Bless him. He also told Bernal he's open to helping out in a part-time capacity.
We suspect the City is going to take him up on that offer.
You know why? Because the budget season is almost upon us and the City still hasn't replaced Assistant City Manager Cindy Muncy. Nor have they replaced Zackary Beseril, the City's budget manager, who submitted his resignation letter April 3.
We're assuming the loss of the three of them is a huge blow to the City. (Yes, we're left to assume because we know — and you know — King Joven and his court aren't going to answer any questions we might pose to them.)
Muncy, in particular, played a huge role in preparing the City's budget for years. Here are some comments from past evaluations she received:
— 2019: Cindy has been a real asset to the city manager's office. I particularly want to point out Cindy's work on the budget and debt issuance. Those would not have happened if Cindy did not take the lead on those items.
— 2020: Cindy has led some of the most significant financial projects for the organization. Including the budget, CAFER, debt issuance and rate increases. Her knowledge and background were critical for the success of these projects.
— 2021: The knowledge she brings to the department is invaluable. Her particular knowledge in public finance has been critical in many areas including the recent debt issuance, budget and annual audits.
— 2022: Cindy has been an absolute ideal assistant city manager. She has performed her duties far beyond expectations...Cindy is someone within our organization that everyone looks to for guidance and help. She has vast knowledge that she is always willing to share with others...
According to records obtained from the City through the Texas Public Information Act (TPIA), after Fry leaves, there will be 11 employees in the finance department. One is a controller and three are accountants. Of the four, three have been with the City less than three years. The fourth will celebrate his fifth anniversary in October, assuming he lasts that long.
The City is currently advertising for replacements for Fry and Beseril, but they've not posted Muncy's job. Nor have they posted former Assistant City Manager Aaron Smith's position. Remember him? He was the guy fired in March who has filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the City.
The City is waiting to fill those positions until they've hired a new city manager. They're accepting resumes now and expect to have someone hired by either mid-July or early August. Oh, and by the way, we find it awfully odd the city manager's position hasn't been posted to the Texas Municipal League's website. If you were a government employee looking for a new job, isn't that the first place you'd look? Municipalities throughout the state routinely post job openings on this site. In fact, the City of Odessa currently has postings for other openings on the website.
With Joven demanding a zero-based budget, we sure hope someone over at City Hall has the knowledge needed to lead our council through such a complicated process.
We also hope there's someone over there who knows the law and has the intestinal fortitude to tell the council to follow it.
According to a memo obtained by the Odessa American through the TPIA, Muncy had serious doubts the council could legally use American Rescue Plan Act funds for first-responder raises.
"We have been researching this for months and getting very mixed responses on the eligibility of doing this," she wrote.
In the same memo, she provided the council with a long list of roadway, water and wastewater projects that could be accomplished with the funding.
The council voted 5-2 to approve the raises on Dec. 13, the same day they fired Muncy's boss, former City Manager Michael Marrero.
Muncy announced her retirement Dec. 19.
Another key person to leave the city is Assistant City Attorney Kevin McKethan. If you'll recall, McKethan was one of two attorneys who were left after City Attorney Natasha Brooks was fired in December, and three other attorneys walked out the door in subsequent weeks.
The City's legal department is budgeted for seven and up until Brooks was unceremoniously dumped, six of those positions were filled.
With McKethan's departure, the department is back to two attorneys: new City Attorney Dan Jones and a recent hire who we hear has little or no experience in the area of criminal law but who is great at contracts.
Honestly, we're a little worried. If you'll recall, the City Council was forced to vote on Jones' appointment not once, but twice. The council didn't give proper notice they'd be voting on his appointment the first time around and he either didn't catch it or didn't think anyone would notice.
And we know it's been a couple of weeks, but we strongly recommend you take the time to watch the May 9 work session/City Council meeting on the City's website, starting from the 2:02:35 mark.
What you will see over the next 27 minutes is the epitome of unprofessionalism.
Joven repeatedly berated Kelly Cook, a founding partner of KDC Associates, for basically not following the chain of command while working on a proposed downtown festival street. You can read the full story here.
Cook and his company have completed numerous projects across Odessa including Memorial Gardens and Progressive Park and to attack him in such a way was completely uncalled for.
If Cook screwed up by not going further up the chain, why didn't the project's point person, Downtown Odessa Executive Director Elizabeth Prieto, inform Cook?
Moreover, if Prieto didn't inform Cook then why wasn't she called on the carpet?
We agree with those who have already said the chain-of-command issue was a pretext. Joven has repeatedly expressed his doubts about the project and believe it or not, we're not sure he's entirely wrong. Spending more than $6 million on a two-block area is somewhat questionable.
Which brings us to another stupid move on the part of the City.
Rather than speculate about the council's decision to cancel KDC's contract and the future of the downtown project, we did what we were supposed to do. We asked for an interview with Joven and Interim City Manager Agapito Bernal.
Honestly, we didn't expect to get the interview or answers to the questions we emailed them, but we did our due diligence.
Here's the response from Monica McDaniel, the $155,000-a-year city spokeswoman:
Thank you for the series of questions and concerns.
Please convey to your readers, our citizens and our staff are our driving force. The City of Odessa is actively striving to improve our service today and tomorrow.
Thank you Kim.
McDaniel isn't the only one being forced to dodge questions. You can add Odessa Police Cpl. Steve LeSueur to the list.
On Monday, we reached out to OPD Chief Mike Gerke to ask him if he knew why Joven wants to discuss the possibility of banning kids from our parks on school days unless they're with a parent. We asked him if there's been an increase in vandalism or disturbances.
On Thursday, LeSueur sent the following response:
Please submit a public information request in reference to your questions.
OK. We get that the mayor and others on the City Council hate the OA. We get that they resent us over our ongoing lawsuit. We understand they think the OA has a radical, left-wing agenda. For the record, this newspaper has always embraced a Libertarian philosophy in our editorial stances, and that is far from left-wing. But seriously, don't you think it behooves our elected leaders to answer our questions? Are they not smart enough to realize that their constituents probably have the same questions we do? Do they not realize they can reach far more voters through the OA than any other avenue?
How difficult would it have been for Gerke to pick up the phone for a five-minute conversation? We suspect he was probably willing to do exactly that but was either ordered not to or was too afraid to given the current state of affairs in the City.
Oh, and by the way, we asked Bernal and Joven for an update on the downtown festival street back on April 20. McDaniel responded by saying meetings on the project would be taking place in a few weeks.
She also wrote: Please feel free to check back then.
On second thought, not really.