Termination of Missouri City City Manager is not a million dollar question, is it?

The political upheaval in Missouri City politics may have come a full circle with the termination of Missouri City City Manager Odis Jones by the city council on April 26 with immediate effect and with “no cause.”

This newspaper can legitimately say “I told you so,” in the light of many articles published last year.

After the November-December city council elections, which resulted in the defeat of then Mayor Yolanda Ford and Councilman Chris Preston, this newspaper had stated:

The election results suggest that the new City Manager Odis Jones will not enjoy the confidence of at least five members of the city council, but replacing him may cost the city dearly.

The public reaction has been on expected lines.

One group has been anticipating this move since the last council election in December 2020 and another group thought the city council simply squandered away more taxpayers’ money in severance payment.

Jones himself was frugal in his words, on hearing the city council’s decision to part ways with him. He received the decision with “shock and surprise” and conceded that the city council was within its right to take the action. As it behoves of a professional, he respected the council’s decision.

The exact amount of severance has not yet been publicly stated and one councilmember who was against the termination of Jones speculated that it could be half a million dollars.

She may be overstating the amount because the severance amount includes $250,000 plus vacation pay and payment to the retirement system. The total would be $300,000 or a little more is an educated guess.

Mayor Robin Elackatt and other councilmembers who voted to terminate Jones could not and would not elaborate on why they decided to fire the city manager.

They would not because any of their comments could provide ground for litigation.

They could not comment otherwise because the termination was without cause, and any statement of reason would contradict the claim of no cause.

The most candid reason that the mayor and council could give was that the city council chose to move in a different direction and it was in the best interest of the city to settle the matter without any more controversy.

And the contract with Jones was structured in such a way that the city had to pay the severance cost, whether it was for a cause or without cause, whether he was fired now or later.

There was no probationary period and the contract was for an indefinite period.

The circumstances under which Jones was hired were such that the then Mayor Yolanda Ford was keen on erasing any remnant of the previous administration and sought to install her own protege.

Jones was well aware that he was being hired by a split city council and he naturally would have asked for a premium to accept such a politically shaky appointment.

The previous city manager Anthony Snipes was hired at a base annual salary of $180,000 and after three years, his salary rose to $213,000.

Also, Snipes had a three-month period to test the waters and the city council also wanted to ensure that he would be a good fit for the city. Once satisfied with Snipes, the city council amended the contract for three years and enhanced the severance pay equivalent of one year salary.

Now, the question remains whether the city council had to incur the expenditure in firing the city manager and did the council try to keep Jones as the city manager.

No affirmative answer is possible, as it would bring into discussion the evaluation of the city manager’s performance.

The new city council was expected to do an evaluation and it appears not all the council members had turned in their evaluation.

Further, as the city attorney told the council, any public discussion of the city manager’s evaluation was prohibited under law and that could be discussed only in a closed session.

Now to put the issue in perspective, without a direct answer to the question why Jones was terminated, recap of a few articles pertaining to the firing of Snipes, hiring of Jones and subsequent city council actions would throw some light.

And they provide a window into the minds of the council members, in justification of the majority decision.

Ford was elected in November 2018. Since then the city council has been functioning as a divided body with the mayor and two at-large members in a minority and the four district council members acting as the majority.

With the election of a new district councilmember in November 2019, the mayor got a majority and the three district councilmembers became minority.

With a simple majority on the city council, Ford took a controversial step by firing then city manager Anthony Snipes on Feb. 24, 2020.

Ironically, an article in this paper dated Feb. 25, 2020 read: City In Search Of A Cause For Firing City Manager

According to a July 4, 2020 report published in this paper, “Missouri City City Council has selected two finalists for the new city manager position. Later, one of the two dropped out before the interview.

The city manager search has been controversial since the beginning and the vote to select the two finalists was divided, 4-3.

The council was split on similar lines over the selection process itself since the three minority members wanted a talent search firm to scout for applicants in a nationwide search, after establishing the characteristics or qualifications for a successful city manager.

The three minority council members also objected to the timing of the city manager selection with the mayor and two at-large council members up for re-election in November.

Further, the city is preparing the budget, amid the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Mayor Ford took issue with those who criticized the city council’s method of city manager selection and posted on Missouri City Concerns Facebook page the following: "It is shameful that this is the narrative that continues to be played and not the truth. We started with more than 50 candidates from all over the US. City council reviewed those candidates. Yes, there were some council members who refused. That was their choice. We interviewed and narrowed those down to 5 and they went through testing, vetting, etc via the executive search firm. Now we have selected the top 2 of the 5....the current candidates are far more qualified than the last city manager ..”

“City manager hired in the wee hours: Vote 4-2-1,” read a report in this paper which said: "Monday night (July 13) at yet another special meeting, a contract that landed in the city hall in the afternoon, was set for a vote. One city council member requested to postpone consideration of the item. It was on the agenda again on July 16."

This newspaper published a story “Mayor Seals The City Manager Selection Despite Public Outcry,” on July 16, 2020.

“The majority of four sealed the future of Missouri City by authorizing Mayor Yolanda Ford to negotiate the employment contract with Odis Jones, former city manager of Hutto.

Councilmembers Jeffrey Boney, Anthony Maroulis and Floyd Emery voted no.

But, the hasty selection and inadequate vetting of the candidate by the majority of four leaves much to be desired. And the haste is to make the appointment before the November election.

If the mayor returns with a majority, the questionable appointment of the city manager will be validated.

If the mayor loses, the future council may terminate the new city manager, and the citizens may lose in terms of huge severance costs, which has already happened in the firing of the erstwhile city manager Anthony Snipes.

The overwhelming opposition from the public was conveyed to the council during public comments.

There was virtually no input from the city attorney, human resources director, other council members, business representatives or citizens in the entire process, former councilmember and a candidate for mayor of Missouri City, Robin Elackatt told the council.

Earlier, Noel Pinnock, in his comments described the hiring process as “botched” and it disregarded the public opinion. People are not sure of the integrity and underlying clandestine nature of the process, he said. The public is “concerned, afraid and upset,” he said.”

Councilmember Vashaundra Edwards said, “We had a plethora of qualified candidates – well-qualified candidates – and we, actually in my opinion, saved the city a lot of money by taking the time to interview them and go through their applications and weeding those out who don’t qualify. I feel as if we did a great job to consider who was qualified to be our next city manager.”

Councilman Jeffrey Boney, District B, said : “I stated again that the process by which the city manager search was performed was completely flawed. It did not include the public, the overall city staff or the departments.”

Then Councilman Floyd Emery, District D, spoke up and said the whole process of finding proper candidates was flawed. “You talk about saving money, it didn’t save money. It’s going to wind up costing us money.

Then Emery said he wanted to know what type of contract Jones might get.

Would he be on a four-month probation period that would also be included in the contract and no severance pay until a year of service has been provided. “I think, with our previous city manager, there was a probation period so we could really tell whether or not he was the right choice that we made,” Emery said.

Ford said there was little difference between Snipes and Jones with regard to “licensing.”

Ford’s point was that Jones had already been a city manager and Snipes, when he was hired by Missouri City, was only an assistant city manager.

What exactly did the current city council mean by saying that the council wants to move in a “different direction,” suggesting there was no synergy between Jones and the majority of the city council?

An Op-Ed piece written Councilman Floyd Emery and published in this paper on Oct. 8, 2020, under the headline, “Another 4 To 3 ‘Council Majority’ In Missouri City” provides a clue.

Emery wrote: At the Sept. 21st Missouri City Council meeting the City Council by a majority vote of 4 to 3 approved the proposed Y2021 budget of City Manager Odis Jones.

Let’s address several elements of this budget which I and Council members Boney and Maroulis questioned and voiced our objection.

I was surprised however by the lack of questions and inquiries from several on Council on such an important item as the $151 million City Budget for the upcoming year.

Additional property tax revenue from increased property assessments and the addition of new property added to our tax rolls, provided the City with additional General Fund revenue.

Further, the hard work and decisions on expense control exercised by our Department Managers and Staff held expenses at reasonable levels.

With these in place, a preliminary budget was prepared by staff which reflected a General Fund balance in excess of the City mandated level of 20 to 30% of projected annual expenditures.

Fast forward to the July 1st arrival of our new City Manager at which time he appropriately reviewed the then proposed preliminary budget and the balance of our General Fund. He, with input from the City financial staff, took steps to identify and add an additional $4.1 million of new programs and supplemental expenditures to the proposed budget. Several of these supplemental items that I consider appropriate.

The City Manager also included the following projects and activities in his proposed budget. It was with several of these initiatives that I objected to having them included in the proposed budget.

An initiative which I objected to was the Economic Development Initiative to establish a Community Development Corporation. This had $200k as startup cost and one (1) Full Time Employee (FTE) to administer a $1.5M revolving loan program.

In discussing this initiative we found that this loan program was not intended to provide forgivable loans nor to assist small businesses with operating capital. Rather it is designed to provide real estate development and redevelopment assistance and act as anchor capital exclusively for use in the Texas Parkway/Cartwright corridors. The issue that drove my objection was the lack of any formal operating plan for this program.

Further, this proposal was first shared with Councilmembers on the Friday before the Monday meeting and we were asked to approve this $1.7 M item on a promise that a detailed work plan would be provided in the near future once research on CDC’s was completed.

This initiative may have merit but until there is a detailed plan and implementation schedule it was impossible for me to assess its value to the City.

Given the trust placed in us by our citizens and constituents to provide effective financial stewardship over their tax dollars I could not approve a program with little or no specificity as to how these requested funds would be controlled and spent.

The proposed budget also contained a project to install and implement ‘Lean Six Sigma’ a process improvement methodology designed to eliminate waste, inefficiencies and other issues with the goal of reducing cost and providing better response to customer needs.

This project had a price tag of approximately $400k which included one (1) FTE (Full Time Employee).Throughout this budget there were seven (7) new FTE added to various Department staffs. Several are the result of converting Part Time employees into two (2) FTE positions, which makes financial sense. However as noted above I disagree with adding one (1) FTE for the Lean Six Sigma project and one (1) FTE for the yet to be defined CDC revolving loan program.

Further, I questioned the need for two (2) FTE in our Communications Department in order to address perceived communication deficiencies. Missouri City through the hard work of our Department Managers and Staff has maintained an area wide leadership in the ratio of FTE to population when compared to surrounding cities.

Accordingly, it was my position that the Communications Department should follow the lead of our other City Department Managers and absorb any increase in demand within their existing workforce.

We as a City are in a time where Covid 19 has altered our work habits and routines and placed restrictions on all of us. It is my opinion and one I shared earlier with the City Manager, but obviously to no avail, that now was not the time to undertake these additional costs.

Who knows what additional cost or reduction of revenues we will face in the coming year. It is in this vein that I believe we should maintain additional reserves in our General Fund and only consider using them for emergency needs or providing the core services to our citizens. It was for these reasons that I was one of the 3 councilmembers that could not and did not approve the proposed Y2021 budget.”

Thus, the latest fallout of Missouri City administration appears inevitable and unavoidable because the previous mayor had structured the city manager appointment in such a way that there is no easy way out for future city council.