Odessa City Council fires city attorney and manager

The Odessa City Council took action during its Tuesday meeting, firing the city attorney and manager, giving police and firefighters pay raises, and giving a Sanctuary City for the Unborn ordinance approval for final adoption.

Three incumbent members of the council, Mayor Javier Joven, At-Large Councilwoman Denise Swanner, and Councilman Mark Matta (Dist. 1) were joined by newly elected councilmembers Chris Hanie (Dist. 5) and Greg Connell (Dist. 4) in voting to terminate the appointments of both attorney Natasha Brooks and manager Michael Marrero.

Councilmembers then voted to appoint assistant city attorney Dan Jones as interim city attorney and Agape Bernal as interim city manager and ordered a search process to find permanent replacements.

The move was met with some loud opposition, including from local attorney Gaven Norris. He interrupted the meeting, yelling several times at Joven regarding the timing of public comment, prompting Joven to demand order in the chamber.

“Tonight, I stand with the citizens of the south side of Odessa, specifically District 1,” Norris stated, describing the residents as his “constituents.”

“I think it’s very clear you don’t give a damn what the people think. We don’t give a damn about party politics, we don’t care about your affiliation with the Republican Party.”

Norris was referencing the fact that Joven is a member of the Ector County Republican Party executive committee.

He then accused the mayor of disenfranchising him of the right to address the council on the issue and announced he would file a lawsuit against each council member in federal court.

Casey Hallmark, who works for a city-funded non-profit that promotes the revitalization of the downtown area, also addressed the council. Hallmark praised Marrero and Brooks while slamming several councilmembers, including Joven, whom she accused of saying the police department was “full of murderers.” She also claimed that he called her a “crazy liberal” and that Hanie had “screamed at her.”

Hallmark then stated that she hoped the council wouldn’t fire her in retaliation for her comments.

The council then turned toward approving the usage of American Rescue Plan Act funds to provide pay increases to firefighters and police officers. Swanner revealed that requests for resources from firefighters that went to the manager’s office were never presented to the council, even though they were told they had been.

Swanner said in a statement clarifying her remarks Tuesday that firefighters were angry at the councilmembers after being told the council had brushed off their requests, and the more she investigated the issue, the more she learned that the manager’s office had withheld information from certain members of the council.

One item she says was withheld included a study conducted by the city in 2019 investigating the drop in emergency personnel.

The city has lost over 181 firefighters since 2018 to other departments, according to Swanner, leaving Odessa in need of emergency responders.

With that, the last notable action of the council was the final passage of a Sanctuary City for the Unborn ordinance.

Hanie and Connell joined Joven, Swanner, and Matta in voting to approve the first reading of the ordinance in November immediately after being sworn into office.

Councilman Gilbert Vasquez (Dist. 3) had abstained initially on the issue but ultimately voted for the final passage in a 6 to 1 vote that received applause from the audience. Councilman Steve Thompson (Dist. 2) was the lone dissenting vote.

Numerous residents addressed the council on the passage of the ordinance, with passionate testimony both supporting and in opposition to the law.

Ector County Democratic Party Chairwoman Hannah Horick spoke out against the ordinance, taking issue with public comment occurring after the vote, and said it was unfortunate there were no exceptions in the law for instances of pregnancy stemming from sexual assault.

“Let’s set aside that Roe should have been settled law, let’s set aside that abortion should be a human right, and that abortion is healthcare,” Horick stated, taking issue with how the ordinance applies to those who assist others in obtaining abortions.

“In the past five years as a private citizen, I have helped countless other people obtain access to all kinds of healthcare, including abortion care. Nothing about this ordinance, whether it has all six of your votes and your signature, Mr. Mayor, will ever stop me,” Horick concluded.

Local activists angry about the council’s actions Tuesday are now threatening to recall certain council members. They have taken issue with the agenda item that provided for citizen comment after the votes to terminate the appointees, pointing to a requirement in the Open Meetings Act that allows for public comment during or before an agenda item.

Mayor Joven released the following statement concerning the firings:

“The citizens of Odessa voted for change in the November election, and the majority of our City Council and myself are onboard with continuing to move our community forward. Council is committed to continually improving every aspect of the City. After extensive review Council determined this type of change would require an adjustment in the day-to-day leadership of the City.

"Leading Odessa into the next phase is going to require collaboration and consistent and effective communication, amongst many other skills. We look forward to establishing and initiating the process to identify quality candidates to permanently fill these roles. In the interim, Dan Jones will serve as our Interim City Attorney and Agapito "Gapi" Bernal will fulfill the required daily duties as our Interim City Manager.

"As a cohesive team, elected officials, City departments and residents will create and share an actionable plan that results in safe and reliable infrastructure and enhanced public safety. Every citizen depends on the City of Odessa to provide these necessities. Dependable water and sewer services, improved roads and enhanced public safety are essential.

"I want to voice my appreciation for each and every one of our city employees and the residents of Odessa during this transition. Now is the time we all come together and continue to provide exemplary customer service and show why we're proud to call Odessa home.

"We are thankful for Mr. Marrero's and Ms. Brooks' service and their years invested in the City. We certainly wish them well in their future endeavors.”

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