Accusations and questions flew across the dais of the Odessa City Council Chamber Tuesday night, as Council-members Steve Thompson and Mari Willis brought forth an agenda item to remove Odessa Economic Development (ODC) Board member Jeff Russell from his post.
Thompson, who spearheaded the effort, faced accusations of political motivation and double standards as he accused Russell, a local tile and flooring business owner, of failing to comply with conflict-of-interest rules during a meeting of the ODC in December.
Thompson accused Russell’s company of having a business relationship with a company, Rhodes USA, and while Russell abstained from the vote, he failed to file a statement of conflict form before the vote and spoke during the agenda item.
Russell addressed the council during the public comment period, saying that he had been mistaken in the past and that he didn’t have a business relationship with Rhodes USA, or a company he thought was affiliated with Rhodes, and therefore didn’t have a duty to abstain from the vote or file the statement, and that legally he did nothing wrong.
During the meeting, Thompson went on the defense against challenges from both council-members Mark Matta and Denise Swanner, who both questioned whether Thompson was giving Russell a fair review, or whether Thompson’s efforts to remove Russell were politically motivated.
“I appointed Russell a year ago because of his business integrity and ethics,” Swanner said as she began to read a statement to the council.
But then Swanner continued, explaining she has a problem with Thompson raising these allegations against Russell when Thompson himself violated state ethics laws himself recently.
But Swanner was cut off in her explanation when other councilmembers raised objections that Swanner’s mentioning of Thompson’s conflict of interest was not relevant to the agenda.
Swanner was referencing a December 2020 council meeting where Thompson can be seen verbally voting “aye” to award his family insurance company, STA Benefits, a $155,000 insurance contract.
Thompson’s vote was later recorded in the minutes as an abstention by former Mayor David Turner, but Thompson never filed the required disclosures until days after the meeting, and only after a media inquiry prompted him to do so – similar circumstances to Thompson’s accusations against Russell.
Several Odessa residents addressed the council on the issue, beginning with local attorney Gavin Norris, saying if there is a pattern of someone doing the wrong thing, then it is up to you (the council) to do what is right.
Norris also spoke citing his professional opinion saying that if what Russell said in the transcript of the ODC meeting is true, then what he did was wrong.
“And it challenges your integrity, and one spoiled apple ruins the bunch,” Norris said.
Norris added he serves on another committee with Russell and doesn’t question his integrity but if what he did was wrong, he should be removed.
Odessa resident Tim Harry also spoke, citing his service on a city board, and argued it’s impossible to keep track of every business transaction someone might make on the spot and that it is wrong to pounce on Russell and not allow him to be heard and correct the record
Harry also spoke about a “double standard” saying “you know exactly what we’re going to go for, the double standard if you go for this, I promise you that.”
Thompson responded to Harry saying “that’s a threat” – with Harry hearing the comment and quickly firing back “if you wanna say that was a threat you can talk to me afterward” before Mayor Joven banged the gavel several times demanding order and decorum.
Russell’s fellow ODC board member Kris Crow also addressed the council, beginning with asking for a prayer for the health of ODC members who are sick, and then proposed a solution to the council, asking that information about both Thompson’s conflict of interest, and Russell’s conflict of interest be presented to the Texas Ethics Commission to make an ascertainment regarding whether either person violated the law.
“I would challenge you both (referring to Russell and Thompson) that if the Ethics Commission saw enough evidence to take up either case, that you resign on your own.”
Russell quickly spoke up saying “I would agree to that,” but Thompson wasn’t interested in the deal, replying to Crow saying “absolutely not.”
Mayor Joven finally called a vote on the issue, and by show of hands, the motion to remove Russell was approved by a 4-3 vote, with Tom Sprawls, Detra White, and Mari Willis joining Steve Thompson in voting to remove Russell.
After the vote, Joven made a brief statement saying he was a longtime friend of Russell’s and does not question his integrity, and while he was going to have to agree to disagree with the majority, positions like this one indeed serve at the pleasure of a majority of the council.
Councilman Tom Sprawls then broke his silence on the issue, saying “I don’t think there’s anything nefarious that happened here, and I think this was strictly an honest happenstance. I for one didn’t feel like this needed to happen…it wasn’t about guilt or innocence or making a mistake or misspeaking or any of that for me. It was about what does this look like?”