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Did Party Politics Cost A Texas City Manager And Attorney Their Jobs?

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Did Party Politics Cost A Texas City Manager And Attorney Their Jobs?

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Did Party Politics Cost A Texas City Manager And Attorney Their Jobs?
Did Party Politics Cost A Texas City Manager And Attorney Their Jobs?

LUBBOCK — While progressives insisted that municipal elections should be nonpartisan, they sought to exclude partisan politics from local government. More than a century later, party politics seem to have returned to competition at the polls, infusing political ideology into municipal affairs in places like Odessa, a West Texas oil town.

At a town meeting this week, the Republican-backed majority of the city council and Odessa's nonpartisan group voted to fire two city employees — the city manager and the city attorney — without cause. The election comes just weeks after three new City Council members were sworn in and before the new members have spent much time with the outgoing staff.

Mayor Javier Joven and four council members, all backed by the Exeter County Republican Party, voted to fire two employees, City Manager Michael Marrero and City Attorney Natasha Brooks.

Marrero, who has been with the city since 1994, declined to comment for the story, and Brooks, who has been with the city since 2015, was unavailable for comment.

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The council's decision to fire the two workers caused an uproar among Odessa residents.

"I was surprised by what happened today," said Filiberto González, former Odessa City Council member, at the meeting. "People have come to the city council without taking proper precautions."

Historically, municipal responsibilities such as waste disposal, water supply and public safety have not been viewed as political. This is why local elections across the country are almost non-partisan, meaning that a candidate's party affiliation is not listed on the ballot.

But shared household chores have become increasingly strained along political lines in recent years, creating friction over even the most mundane of issues.

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Perhaps the most visible are school boards in Texas and across the country. Disagreements over critical race theory, library books, and history curricula have turned blackboards into political battlegrounds. In Tarrant County, for example, the conservative PAC Patriot Mobile Action has spent about $390,000 on four conservative candidates running for the local school board.

"When you have addictions, it's hard to manage," said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. "It affects the way business is done and it's very difficult to reach a consensus."

At the Odessa City Council meeting, one by one, community members took to the stage to protest their elected leaders for overreaching and acting without listening to their constituents. While many spoke positively about the two fired employees, they did not understand why board members fired such competent employees without explanation.

Although some members of the community spoke at the meeting, they were disappointed that they were only able to comment after the board fired two employees. He argued that citizens should have their say before the vote.

In a heated speech to the council, a local prosecutor said he plans to sue the council for civil rights violations.

"Mr. Mayor, please understand, I'm suing the city," attorney Gavin Norris said. "They took away my right to vote."

Norris said before the meeting that the lawsuit was pending and that the actions taken at this week's meeting would be added to the lawsuit. He declined to comment on the underlying cause of the lawsuit. No complaints were filed.

"Local politics shouldn't divide the community," Norris said in an interview with the Texas Tribune. "We have leaders who are obsessed with dividing us."

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In a statement, Joven defended the board's actions without giving reasons for the two dismissals.

"Odesians voted for change in the November election, and I and most of our city council are coming together to move our community forward," she said. "Council is committed to continuing to improve the overall appearance of the City. After careful consideration, Council has determined that this type of change requires an adjustment to the day-to-day operations of the City."

The Ector County Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment. In an earlier interview with local media, party chairwoman Tisha Crowe said she was thrilled that Odessa "will be represented by conservative, God-fearing Republican veterans in the new city council."

Hannah Horick, chairwoman of the Exeter County Democratic Party, said she now has serious concerns about whether the move is good for Odessa or legal.

"These necessary changes were made in consultation with local Republican leaders, including county and district presidents, and it's not hard to imagine that there are clear violations of the Open Meetings Act," Horick said. Or simply an attempt to break the letter of the law.

While Horick works to elect Democrats, the party shouldn't be in city government because it turns local attention into national culture wars. The latest example, he says, is that Odessa became a "city of unborn saints" last month, when the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. In June and Texas, Wade had one of the strictest abortion bans in the country.

Joven tried to pass the ordinance in January 2021, but three council members balked, citing that it was not the city's business and that there were other priorities. In August of that year, Hoven tried to call an early election on the issue, but was again rejected. The resolution became a campaign promise in this year's election, and at least one newly elected councilman, Chris Haney, said it would be a priority if elected.

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In a 5-1 vote with one abstention, the new city council approved the ordinance in its second meeting.

"To me, this reflects the spirit of the festival, not what's best for our city and our destiny," Horick said. "We're going to see a lot more under the leadership of this mayor and some of the council members."

Horik said Odessa became more politicized under Joven, Odessa's first Hispanic mayor.

Since Horik took office in late 2020, we've seen infighting and divided city government. Now that they have more votes in this Republican group, it wouldn't surprise me that they're trying to make significant changes.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article contained a statement issued by Odense for Ethical Leadership. The statement was sent by a fake Facebook account and has since been removed from the story.

Disclosure: The University of Houston funds The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization, in part through grants from members, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial sponsors play no role in the Tribune's reporting. Find their full list here.

This article originally appeared in the Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/12/16/odessa-city-council-fired-employees-republican-party/

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, member-supported newsroom that informs and engages Texans about state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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