Social media and local media outlets have been buzzing over the termination of appointed positions within the City of Odessa. During the December 13, 2022, Odessa City Council Meeting the Council brought forth an agenda item regarding the employment of then City Manager Michael Marrero, and City Attorney Natasha Brooks. Theories regarding the terminations and subsequent lawsuit filed by local divorce and family law attorney Gavin Norris abound.
Here’s what we know:
The action taken by City Council terminated the appointment of the sitting city manager and city attorney, and by definition were not firings. While the end result of the City Council’s actions is that Marrero and Brooks are no longer on the city payroll, the distinction between the terminations and firing is important.
There are a very limited number of city positions the Odessa City Council has direct control over and these include City Manager, City Attorney, City Secretary, and Municipal Court judges. All other city positions report directly or indirectly to the City Manager.
It is fair to compare these Council controlled positions to the cabinet positions that are appointed by the President. Typically, upon election new presidents terminate the appointments of cabinet members like Secretary of State, Secretary of Commerce, etc. because it is unlikely those that served under the former president will have the same priorities, objectives and mindset as the newly elected president. Because the City of Odessa has a strong City Manager/weak City Council structure it is imperative that Council appointees are aligned with the agenda of the City Council and are willing to effectively execute the programs, plans, and agenda of City Council. If not, the elected officials of the City Council will be hamstrung and unable to carry forward the will of the voters by whom they were elected.
With the overwhelming election of Mayor Joven and Councilmembers Matta and Swanner over rival incumbents in December of 2020 Odessa voters clearly indicated that change from the previous Council was desired. However, a voting block of four Councilmembers – White, Willis, Sprawls, and Thompson – worked in lockstep with the current city administration – most notably City Manager Marrero and City Attorney Brooks – to maintain the status quo.
Two primary agenda items illustrate the contention between the newly elected members and existing city administration: removing game rooms from Odessa and increasing first responder pay to competitive levels.
During the 2020 election Joven, Matta, and Swanner vowed to rid Odessa of the illegal game rooms which seemed to occupy every empty building in the city. Police records show local game rooms had become hotbeds of illegal activity including illegal gambling through the payout of cash prizes in excess of the $5.00 “fuzzy animal” limit, drug dealing, and appeared to have ties to human trafficking and other crimes.
Post-election Joven, Matta, and Swanner joined in efforts to either seriously curtail game room activities and their proliferation or possibly rid the city entirely through the enactment of new city ordinances. Despite a recently decided case by the Texas Second Court of Appeals out of Ft. Worth, which held that game room gambling violated the Texas Constitution, both Marrero and Brooks worked to stymie the City Council’s ordinance efforts citing a number of unfounded reasons why the city couldn’t simply shut down or restrict game rooms. Attorney Brooks often fell back on provisions in the Texas Occupational Code which had been deemed by the Court not to apply to game room activities. Marrero’s motivation appeared to be the continued collection of game room license fees which had steadily risen to almost $750,000 per year with many of the city’s 32 game rooms paying in excess of $25,000 per year in fees. To no avail Council repeatedly asked Marrero and Assistant City Manager Cindy Muncy for details on the payments received, where the fees were logged in the City’s accounts, and where the funds were spent inside the city. Under current Texas law any game room fees collected could only be spent on game room regulation enforcement but no evidence was provided by Marrero or Muncy indicating how the collected fees were spent.
EMERGENCY WORKER PAY INCREASES
Citing the loss of over 180 critical staff from Odessa Fire/Rescue (OFR) ranks during the past two years, Councilmember Swanner was joined by Councilmember Matta to investigate what could be done to stem the flow of personnel losses. Swanner and Matta met with Fire Chief Alvarez and City Manager Marrero to determine what the Odessa City Council could do to help OFR, but quickly discovered a disconnect between what they were told by Chief Alvarez and the OFR rank and file that reached out to them to discuss Odessa OFR’s lack of competitive pay and morale problems.
Swanner and Matta were told by OFR personnel that a salary study had been completed by CPS HR Consulting in 2019/2020 which showed Odessa was behind the ball in firefighter salaries and that they had been told by Alvarez and Marrero that these issues had been brought before the 2020 Council but that the Council had declined in offering recommended pay increases. According to Council agendas no such requests were presented to the Odessa City Council during 2020 or 2021.
Relying on her own research, Swanner began to aggressively push for increased wages but was repeatedly rebuffed by Marrero and a voting block of four – Thompson, White, Willis, and Sprawls – who claimed the city couldn’t afford to increase emergency worker salaries and cited the need to complete a newly ordered salary study from Evergreen Solutions before moving forward with any raises. Frustrated by the continued missed deadlines to complete the study and citing the need to move forward as OFR was losing additional personnel monthly and was currently seriously understaffed, Swanner and Matta placed increasing OFR salaries on Council’s agenda on several occasions.
Swanner proposed using unspent American Rescue Act (ARPA)/COVID relief funds issued by the federal government during the COVID crisis to pay for the raises but was told by Thompson, Marrero and Brooks ARPA funds couldn’t be used for emergency worker salaries despite the ARPA guidelines clearly stating that funds can be used for such wages and the fact that many communities across Texas such as Houston had successfully used ARPA funds for emergency worker salaries.
It was only with the seating of new council members Hanie and Connell that raises were approved for all emergency workers at the December 13, 2022 City Council meeting.
The December 13, 2022 City Council agenda listed the following agenda items:
As noted on the agenda, the City Council planned on an open session to discuss the appointment terminations; however, as this agenda item was announced Marrero immediately announced that under the terms of his and Brooks’ contracts that they would be exercising their contractual right to hold any discussions in executive session behind closed doors. The Council adjourned to executive session as demanded by Marrero and Brooks and returned shortly to take action on the listed agenda items.
Upon the Council’s return several agitators in attendance began to shout and overtalk Mayor Joven and the meeting threatened to get out of hand. After repeatedly threatening to wield his gavel to return order to the meeting, Council was finally able to move forward with the posted agenda.
After the meeting concluded Mayor Joven gave a short statement to local press stating that it was the Council’s belief, as evidenced by the actions they had just taken, that Odessa needed to move in a new direction with new administrative leadership and this was the cause for the termination of appointments.
Many media and social reporters have continued to question why Mayor Joven or other City Council members haven’t offered additional comment on the terminations, but employment laws, the contracts of Marrero and Brooks, and the Norris lawsuit have prohibited further comment.
Changes within government administrations are not uncommon as many Councils have found it necessary to replace key positions to advance their vision for the city to which they were elected to serve. Locally, in the past few years both the Alpine and Pecos City Councils have completed the replacement of their City Manager and City Attorney and both cities seem to now be moving forward smoothly.
Since election, Joven, Swanner, and Matta have expressed their desire to focus the City of Odessa government on providing quality infrastructure such as roads, water, and sewer, and to ensure that public safety departments are adequately staffed and funded to provide for public safety. During their campaigns newly elected council members Connell and Hanie voiced support for these efforts and, based on their most recent actions, Council seems serious about fulfilling these initiatives.
Odessa Headlines will continue to follow this story.