By Pooja Salhotra, The Texas Tribune
“Odessa City Council will meet to reconsider firing two top employees after lawsuit” 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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An Ector County district judge rescinded a restraining order he issued earlier this week against the city of Odessa, allowing the City Council to once again consider terminating its top two employees who were first fired in December.
The ruling came down two weeks after Gaven Norris, a local attorney, filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging that Mayor Javier Joven violated his rights during a December council meeting. During the meeting, the mayor refused to give Norris and other community members a chance to speak before the council ousted the two employees, City Manager Michael Marrero and City Attorney Natasha Brooks.
The judge first ruled that a temporary injunction was needed because “immediate and irreparable injury, loss, or damage” would be done before court proceedings could take place. In a reversal on Wednesday, he rescinded that order and cancelled a Jan. 10 hearing to decide whether the injunction should be extended.
According to the agenda for a council meeting Jan. 9, the City Council plans to again consider firing Brooks and Marrero. Also included on the agenda is an opportunity for members of the public to address the council before it takes a vote.
“There aren’t very many cases that are black and white because the law isn’t black and white, but this one is as close to black and white as you can get,” Norris said, prior to the judge’s reversal.
Odessa city spokesperson Victor Wade did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the city’s response to the lawsuit or the judge’s order. In a December statement following the City Council meeting, Joven defended the council’s actions without explaining why the two employees had been terminated.
According to City Council member Steven Thompson, one of two members who voted against the terminations, the two interim employees whom the city council hired to replace Marrero and Brooks did not report to work on Wednesday, the day after the court’s ruling.
Neither of the two terminated employees could immediately be reached for comment.
Norris said that if the city did not follow the court’s order to reinstate the two employees, he would file a motion to hold the city in contempt of court.
The council’s decision to terminate the two employees last month was met with criticism from Odessa residents who said party politics had gotten in the way of good government.
City council positions are typically nonpartisan, but in recent years, party politics have seeped into down-ballot races, including for city council and school board positions. In Odessa, the mayor and four of the City Council members were backed by the Ector County Republican Party.
“Party affiliation never used to be a consideration as long as you had the interests of the city of heart,” said Gene Collins, president of the Odessa branch of the NAACP. “The city is in total disarray right now.”
Norris said this lawsuit is the first of several he intends to file against the city of Odessa based on actions taken by Joven and his voting bloc. He said he intends to file two or three more lawsuits within the next several weeks. He did not specify those causes of action.
During a council work session this week, members discussed a budget amendment that would appropriate funds to a consulting company that would help the city recruit a new city manager and assist with the transition in leadership.
During a heated discussion, Thompson, the council member who voted against firing the city employees, accused the mayor of signing an “illegal contract” for the consultant without engaging in a formal bidding process. Joven defended himself, saying that no money had been exchanged yet.
And Thompson said Joven was trying to change the council’s form of government from a weak-mayor system, where the city is largely run by the city manager, to a strong-mayor system.
“He’s got the votes on the council, but I don’t think the public will go for that,” Thompson said. “We’ve got a serious issue.”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/01/04/odessa-city-council-lawsuit/.
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