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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?” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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LUBBOCK — When Progressive-era advocates pushed for municipal elections to be nonpartisan, they sought to remove party politics from local government. More than a century later, party politics appear to have seeped back into down-ballot races, injecting political ideology into municipal affairs in places like Odessa — an oil town in West Texas.

During a town meeting this week, the Republican-backed majority on Odessa’s nonpartisan City Council voted as a bloc to terminate two city employees — the city manager and city attorney — without clear cause. The vote came just weeks after three new City Council members were sworn in to office, and before those new members had spent significant time working with the employees they let go.

Mayor Javier Joven and four council members — all of whom have been supported by the Ector County Republican Party — voted to fire the two employees, City Manager Michael Marrero and City Attorney Natasha Brooks.

Marrero, who has been employed by the city since 1994, declined to comment for this story, and Brooks, who has worked for the city since 2015, could not be reached for comment.

[The Odessa water outage underscores a growing problem: Aging pipes in Texas cities are getting more fragile]

The council’s decision to fire the two workers was met by uproar from Odessa residents.

“I’m flabbergasted by what just happened today,” Filiberto Gonzales, a former Odessa city council member, said during the meeting. “People came into the City Council without doing their due diligence.”

Historically, municipal governments’ responsibilities, such as waste management, water distribution and public safety, have not been considered highly political. That’s why nearly all local elections across the country are nonpartisan, meaning a candidate’s party affiliation is not printed on the ballot.

But even general housekeeping duties have become highly polarized along political lines in recent years, causing friction on even the most mundane issues.

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

“It’s harder to govern when you have partisanship,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. “It affects the way business is conducted and it’s harder to create consensus.”

During the Odessa City Council meeting, community members stepped up to the podium one by one to tell their elected leaders that they were out of line and had acted without listening to their constituents. Many spoke favorably of the two fired employees and said they were confused about why council members fired competent workers without an explanation.

Although several community members spoke up during the meeting, they were upset they got a chance to comment only after the council had already booted out the two employees. They should have been allowed to speak prior to the vote, citizens argued.

In a heated address to the council, one local attorney said he intends to sue the council for violating citizens’ rights.

“Mr. Mayor, please understand, I’m filing a suit against the city,” attorney Gaven Norris said. “You’ve disenfranchised my voice.”

Norris said the lawsuit was in the works before the meeting took place and that he’d add the events from this week’s meeting to the lawsuit. He declined to comment on the original motivation for the lawsuit. The lawsuit has not been filed.

“Local politics aren’t supposed to divide the community,” Norris said in an interview with The Texas Tribune. “We have a group of leaders hell-bent on dividing us.”

In a statement, Joven defended the council’s action without providing a reason for the two terminations.

“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,” he said. “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.”

The Ector County Republican Party did not respond to requests for comment. In a prior interview with local media, party chair Tisha Crow said she was excited that Odessa would be “represented by a new city council majority comprised of conservative God-fearing Republican patriots.”

Hannah Horick, the chair for Ector County Democratic Party, said there are now serious concerns about whether this was a good move for Odessa, or even legal.

“When these substantial changes happen, in concert with local Republican leadership including precinct chairs and a county chair, it’s hard not to wonder if there are blatant violations of the Open Meetings Act,” Horick said. “Or just efforts that might skirt the letter of the law.”

While Horick works to get Democrats elected, she said partisanship should not be in city government because it shifts local focus into national culture wars. One recent example, she said: Odessa became a “sanctuary city for the unborn” last month, despite the Supreme Court striking down Roe v. Wade in June and Texas having one of the most restrictive bans on abortion in the nation.

Joven attempted to pass the ordinance in January 2021, but three council members declined, noting that it was not a city issue and there were other priorities. Joven tried that August to get a special election on the matter but was rejected again. The ordinance became somewhat of a campaign promise during this year’s election, with at least one newly elected council member, Chris Hanie, saying it would be a top priority if they were elected.

In a vote of 5-1, with one abstaining, the new City Council passed the ordinance during their second meeting.

“To me, that is such a reflection of partisanship and not a reflection of what’s in the city’s best interests and our destinies,” Horick said. “We see so much of that under this mayor’s leadership and the leadership of some members of the council.”

Horick said Odessa has become more politicized under Joven, who is the first Hispanic mayor of Odessa.

“We’ve seen a partisan and divided city government since he took office in late 2020,” Horick said. “It’s no surprise to me that, now that they have secured additional votes in this bloc of Republicans, that they would go and try to make a substantial change.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article contained a statement that was purportedly from Odessans for Ethical Leadership. The statement was sent from a parody Facebook account and has been deleted from the story.

Disclosure: The University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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