Following the appointment of interim City Manager Agape Bernal and City Attorney Dan Jones, the first quarter of 2023 has seen many changes in the governance of the City Of Odessa. “While change is never easy, City staff is responding well to the new administrative leadership and we’re seeing many positive signs telling us that we’re headed in the right direction.” stated Odessa Mayor Javier Joven during a recent interview with Odessa Headlines.
“While I’m never one to want to spend taxpayer money, our ability to use some outside consultants to help us quickly get to where we need to be has been necessary as we worked through cleaning up some messes left by the previous administration.” Joven continued. When asked about what he considered “messes” Joven quickly pointed to the recently completed investigation into the allegations made by Casey Hallmark. “In order to conduct a fair and unbiased investigation Council felt it absolutely necessary to hire an outside law firm to conduct this investigation. Council wanted to ensure that the work completed was completely untainted and therefore we hired Davidson-Sheen and let them do their work without interference. Would I have liked to not spend the over $12,000 that was required to complete this work – you bet. However, Ms. Hallmark’s allegations were serious and we needed to handle this properly so we could move forward.”
Joven also commented about the ongoing investigation into a potential Odessa Fire Rescue incident. “That’s another mess the City is having to deal with. When Mr. Bernal took over as City Manager he discovered that this incident hadn’t been properly reported or investigated and he felt like it demanded further investigation to ensure that the City knew exactly what had happened so that we could guarantee that proper procedures are in place to keep such an incident from happening in the future. From what Attorney Sheen has discovered so far there were a lot of failures along the chain of command, in the way the incident was reported and followed up on. This is clearly a case where, if the prior administration had done their job properly, we would not now be forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars on cleaning this up.”
Joven also stated that the city has also retained other outside law firms to handle some litigation work for the city but, although these attorneys bill at a higher hourly rate than the City internal attorneys, the City isn’t on the hook for any benefits costs, office expenses, and other costs. Joven also noted that outside attorneys are paid only for the actual time worked on litigation for the city and with the expenses of the City legal department being trimmed significantly the current expenditures are more than covered by the legal department’s 2022-2023 budget.
“I wish I could tell taxpayers that we can avoid some of these legal costs but the reality is that with the City there is no such thing as a ‘routine’ lawsuit as everytime a City employee is involved in the slightest of accidents the personal injury lawyers come out of the woodwork and are looking for a payday. I believe it’s important that we have lawyers representing us that do litigation work every day. Dan Jones is a great attorney and is a skilled litigator but, as Interim City Attorney, he has a lot of plates in the air and I don’t think it’s fair or in the City’s best interest to have him litigating cases.” Joven stated.
Joven also discussed that during the previous administration of Natasha Brooks that she too hired outside council and had agreements with Cotton Bledsoe, Brockett, McNeel & Pocsik and others. Joven said that many of these firms are no longer being used by the city and that the City legal department is operating efficiently even though it has fewer attorneys on staff than before. “I suppose it helps when some of your senior legal staff are not regularly taking three hour lunches to do Zumba at Crunch Fitness’.
“The one legal expense that frustrates me most is the $300,000 plus that city taxpayers have had to pay to defend the City against the Odessa American’s lawsuit. The OA keeps losing and appealing, losing and appealing. This lawsuit, which the courts have repeatedly said has no merit, should have concluded long ago but the OA just can’t admit they lost. Continuing to spend taxpayer money on this case really frustrates me and the fact that the OA wants the City to cover some $650,000 in attorneys fees that they have spent to pursue this failed case is unbelievable.” Joven stated.
Joven then noted that during a recent City Council meeting it was discussed that the City’s policy and procedure manual hadn’t been updated since 2008. “Another mess left behind to clean up. I think everyone knows that workplace laws have changed dramatically since 2008 and for the City not to have been regularly updating this important HR document and ensuring that our staff is properly trained on these matters is really incredible. This is a basic thing that we’re now having to spend $10,000 of taxpayer money in order to get us compliant ASAP.”
Odessa Headlines also spoke with several City Council members to ask their perspective on the work being done at City Hall. District 1 City Councilman Mark Matta said that “It’s refreshing to be confident that our City staff is getting the things done that need doing. I agree with Councilman Thompson that it’s not the job of City Council to micromanage the City’s daily operations and, for the first time since I’ve been on Council, I believe our city manager and city attorney are getting our city to hit on all cylinders.”
At Large City Councilwoman Denise Swanner echoed Matta’s comments: “While it’s been a lot of work to get us to where we’re at and we’ve come under attack from some of the old established power brokers, I know that we’re on the right path. My confidence in our Interim City Manager and City Attorney continues to grow and I see us quickly working through a lot of the problems that were left behind by the old administration. I’m very proud of the work being done and I’m excited for our city’s future.”
District 5 City Councilman Chris Hanie stated “The most encouraging thing I see right now is that we have city employees staying – not leaving – because of the changes they see being made. Positive changes. Changes that are moving our city forward. When I’m at City Hall I can see that people are happily coming to work and that’s exciting.”
Greg Connell, District 4 City Councilman stated he was pleased with how things with the City are proceeding. “We still have a lot of work ahead of us but I’m pleased with the progress that has been made. Knowing that our City Manager and City Attorney are working with City Council as a team has greatly increased my confidence that we’re getting things in order. Both Gapi and Dan are doing an excellent job. I know that public service is near and dear to their hearts and they’ve both stepped up and answered the call during a very difficult situation. I think that Odessa residents are going to continue to see a lot of positive changes and I know the entire Council stands ready to serve our city and to keep the improvements coming.”
Joven concluded the interview by saying “While it’s been a lot of work and we’ve taken some flack for the work we’ve had to do, I’m proud of the fact that our City is becoming better day by day. The work Mr. Bernal and Mr. Jones and all of the rest of the staff have been doing has been excellent and they’ve had to work through a lot of thorny issues left behind by the prior administration. I couldn’t be prouder of where I see our City heading as we continue to change the way the City interacts with our residents and how we are working to meet the needs of our city.”
Odessa Headlines also requested comment from District 2 City Councilman Steve Thompson and District 3 Councilman Gilbert Vasquez but received no response.
While District 2 City Councilman Steve Thompson missed our publication deadline due to other commitments, he did respond to our request for comment and Odessa Headlines wanted to include his comments in our story.
District 2 City Councilman Steve Thompson stated that while he continues to have objections to the way in which Interim City Manager Agape Bernal and City Attorney Dan Jones were appointed he does believe that “We are now getting some things accomplished.” Thompson did say that he feels “Dan Jones is doing a good job” but expressed concern about Bernal saying “I think he’s in over his head.”
Thompson also stated that he continues to believe that the T2 contract “was illegally entered into” and that he voted no on funding this contract. However, he said that “once we got Dr. Hank, the mental scientist, off the team because he could not or would not provide his credentials, the other folks seem to be doing a good job. I think the process has been good to this point.”