"What took place was at worst, a possible violation of open meetings laws, at best, it severely lacked transparency and was a disappointing attempt to take action on an item of enormous public interest, without the public’s knowledge or input and erodes the public trust."

On Wednesday, Ector County Commissioners entered their last day of a three-day meeting working to craft the annual budget for all elected offices and departments, and it was during this process the commissioners suddenly distributed roughly $20 million in federal aid funds – a move that is being questioned for a lack of transparency and compliance with state open meeting laws.

The agenda for the meeting, which was posted late Friday, contained one agenda item allowing commissioners to “consider, discuss, review, and take any necessary action” on the annual budget for all elected officials and county departments. The agenda also allowed for the court to recess and reconvene as needed to consider matters incident to the budget, tabled items, policy matters, and long-range planning.

However, on Wednesday afternoon, after having recessed and reconvened in the budget meeting for three days, commissioners suddenly moved to take up and allocate nearly all the remaining federal aid funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), or roughly $20 million to what appears to be local non-county entities, including two water districts and several volunteer fire departments, which are generally non-profit corporations contracted by counties.

With few members of the public in the audience, Precinct 2 Commissioner Greg Simmons made a motion to allocate the funds to the following entities:

  • Ector County Utility District received $10 Million
  • Gardendale Water District received $4.5 Million
  • South Odessa Volunteer Fire Department received $1.94 Million
  • West Odessa Volunteer Fire Department received $1.94 Million
  • Gardendale Volunteer Fire Department received $900,000
  • Goldsmith Volunteer Fire Department received $900,000

Simmons’s motion received a second from Precinct 1 Commissioner Mike Gardner, and passed 4-1, with Precinct 4 Commissioner Armando Rodriguez being the lone dissenting voice – saying he voted against the measure because the public deserved fair notice of the vote so they may give their opinion on the issue.

Ector County Judge-Elect Dustin Fawcett, who will assume office in January, was heavily critical of the sudden and unannounced move to allocate the funds, pointing out that the application for eligible entities such as the Ector County Sheriff’s Office, as well as other county elected officials and Medical Center Hospital (MCH) to apply for the funds was made available to an unaware public 20 minutes before the vote to distribute the funds occurred, and questioned the ethics of how the commissioners made the move with a lack of transparency.

“What took place was at worst, a possible violation of open meetings laws, at best, it severely lacked transparency and was a disappointing attempt to take action on an item of enormous public interest, without the public’s knowledge or input and erodes the public trust,” Fawcett wrote Odessa Headlines in a statement, adding further, “To literally rush through spending over $20 million in a 10-minute meeting without public input or discussion and without having any actual applications submitted is negligent of proper governance.”

The Commissioner’s Court has held several public meetings regarding the allocation of the ARPA funds, with the prior meeting agendas clearly indicating that the ARPA funds would be up for discussion and possible action – and each time the clearly posted agenda item has drawn a crowded room of elected officials and representatives of qualifying entities to speak before the court regarding the merit of their requests.

MCH hospital CEO Russell Tippin was one of those officials in attendance at every prior meeting to make the hospital’s case before the court but told Odessa Headlines he was not there Wednesday because there was no way he or anyone else could have known the allocation was going to occur under the vague agenda notice, otherwise, he would have been there.

“What bothers me the most about this is if Medical Center would’ve known that they were going to discuss the rescue fund we would’ve been in attendance, but they gave us no indication that that was a topic of discussion during these workshops,” Tippin said in a statement.

Odessa Headlines previously reported in October of last year that Ector County Judge Debi Hays was unreceptive to requests from the hospital to have extra time to be heard on their ARPA funding requests before the court, and ultimately left Tippin to speak during the regular three minutes of public testimony time.

According to the Texas Attorney General’s Handbook on the Open Meetings Act, “generalized terms” are not sufficient to give the public notice of a meeting because they do not inform the public of its subject matter.

The handbook also describes how governmental bodies must provide an adequate description of matters with a special interest to the public.

One noteworthy point contained in the handbook footnotes describes how governments must be consistent in the terminology they use to distinguish whether an item will simply be discussed or if they may take action.

“[N]otice stating only “discussion” (on an agenda) is insufficient to indicate board action is intended, given prior history of stating “discussion/action” in agenda when action is intended.”

Texas Attorney General Handbook on the Open Meetings Act

The notice given for Wednesday’s meeting only allowed for action to be taken on the proposed annual budget for “all Ector County Elected Officials and County Departments” but didn’t include references of action on budgets relating to non-county entities, nor did it reference the ARPA funds which have been of considerable special interest to the public and public officials.

Odessa Headlines reached out to the Ector County Commissioners, Ector County Judge Debi Hays, and the Ector County Attorney’s Office with questions regarding whether Wednesday’s vote complied with the Texas Open Meetings Act, an inquired whether the agenda allowed for distribution of funds to non-county entities.

As of publication, none of the officials we contacted have responded.

Matt Stringer is a journalist from Odessa, Texas.