Bold proposals and a new precedent at city council

MARFA – The new mayor and council members are finally all in place, and together they brought fresh energy and new proposals to Tuesday’s city council meeting. Council-members went full steam ahead to address the City Manager vacancy, presented original ideas for city employee accountability, and set new precedent for the city’s stance on selling its streets.

Vacancy in the City Manager’s office

Mayor Manny Baeza was eager to start the conversation about finding a new City Manager after former manager Terry Brechtel’s departure on Monday. As budget season for the city approaches, Baeza hoped to assign responsibilities to former Marfa mayor and current city employee, Dan Dunlap.

Baeza remarked that Dunlap had already been helping out quite a bit, and asked Dunlap if he would be willing to take on the role. Dunlap was interested, but newly appointed Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda quickly asked if current Assistant to the City Manager, Peggy O’Brien, would be willing to do the same.

O’Brien has familiarized herself with the office through working closely with Brechtel, and filling in to some capacity when Brechtel was traveling. O’Brien expressed interest, and admitted she was not as financially savvy as Dunlap.

Councilmember Raul Lara added that “You’ve got somebody financial on this side,” pointing to Dunlap. Baeza affirmed, “We’re going into budget season so we need someone financial.”

It was only then that Councilmember Buck Johnston added that she had been looking outside of the city offices for potential candidates. “I have talked to a couple people locally who I thought might fill in, in the interim,” Johnston said. “I think they might be interested if we wanted to pursue that.”

With little debate, councilmembers voted on a motion by Councilmember Natalie Melendez to break out responsibilities of the City Manager between O’Brien and Dunlap, and meanwhile post listings locally for an Interim City Manager, and nationally list the permanent City Manager position.

As city manager, Brechtel had invested funds from the City of Marfa for the first time ever. In the first quarter, the city saw a net profit of over $17,000, and no one within council expressed an interest to end the low-risk investments. However, with Brechtel out, the council chose to appoint Dunlap as Investment Officer, on a motion by Lara. Dunlap is already able to authorize the transfer of funds, but the role’s most important duty, according to Dunlap, was to report to council on its investments. Dunlap will only hold the title until a City Manager is chosen.

Salgado and the city employees

Councilmember Irma Salgado placed two new action items on the agenda this week, both addressing city employees. The first resolution came about after Salgado noticed a $600 expense to the city to repair a city vehicle.

Salgado said the bill has bothered her since it appeared in the Accounts Payable Report, and she proposed instituting mandatory drug and alcohol tests for any city employee involved in an accident while operating a city vehicle. She also suggested some liability on the employee’s part, but council members debated whether that was legally allowed. City Attorney Teresa Todd replied she would have to look into whether drug testing could be mandatory, and whether the city could shift liability to employees.

Ben-Yehuda interjected, “I think the issue of financial responsibility is a sticky one.” Salgado clarified that she didn’t want employees paying for every fender bender; “If we have our insurance or the city pay for the damages, that’s no problem, but I want to make sure we know why the accident happened, and that this documentation needs to be put in the personnel files.” Salgado hoped to photograph all the vehicles, and institute rules going forward, but ultimately tabled the item so that Attorney Todd could provide accurate legal advice.

Salgado’s second item was to make direct payroll deposits mandatory for all employees. The councilmember explained that 19 city employees rely on the payroll offices to cut a check every two weeks. Her item would reduce the workload, no longer require signatures by two city officials for each check, and would save money on printing and checks. Salgado suggested a month-long grace period to allow employees to switch over.

From there, citizens in the audience spoke up against the move. Marfa resident Shelley Bernstein opposed the change, addressing council to say, “Not everybody has access to a bank account, and given the disparities I see here, for people who don’t have access to bank accounts I just think it sends the wrong message about who you want to hire.” Dunlap added that the city hires students at the pool to lifeguard, and they likely would not have checking accounts either.

Ben-Yehuda and Melendez both agreed that encouraging employees to switch was ideal, but didn’t believe in making it mandatory.

Finally, a city employee joined the conversation. EMS Director Burt Lagarde told council, “I don’t feel comfortable sharing my banking information,” and that being paid by check allowed him to keep control over who has access to his bank account. “Currently, I can determine how to process it or cash it. I don’t have a local account; I have an out of town account, and I don’t want to incur fees accessing my money.”

Ben-Yehuda then suggested that “some banks will allow free bank accounts if you have monthly direct deposit,” and that the city should contact Big Bend Banks President Chip Love.

Melendez motioned that the city would not make direct deposit mandatory for all employees, and all but Salgado voted to support the motion.

Whose streets?

Tuesday marked the sixth meeting that council had mulled over the potential sale of city streets to Lindy Thorson and Terrance Mowers, Marfa residents who hoped to purchase a platted but unopened portion of Novez Avenue and Tenorio Street. By purchasing that city land, two of their properties would be contiguously connected.

By Tuesday, the item had been reduced to just the purchase Novez, a compromise brought by Council-member Melendez.

The city has a long history of closing and selling publicly owned streets, as long as every landowner affected consents to the sale. Mary Williams, a resident in the surrounding Buena Vista neighborhood said just because it has been done often, doesn’t mean it should continue to be done.

Attorney Todd agreed with the sentiment, informing council “It’s a policy question. In the past, the policy of this city council has been that if all of the adjoining land owners wanted to close it, it puts money in the city coffers, it was no harm, no foul, it was done. Y’all are a different city council.”

John Williams, another resident of Buena Vista, proceeded to lay out various discrepancies in the proposed street-closing ordinance, taking issue with the hired appraiser’s “lowballed” $0.66 per square foot valuation when compared to comparable lots and the total square footage listed given the street sizes.

Williams concluded to the council, “If you sell your own streets, you’re cutting your own throats. The people who own that land won’t be around forever, but that land will be private forever,” once the sale was completed. The street divides two properties owned by Thorson and Mowers, one with developed housing structures, and another that is nine vacant lots. At previous meetings, council members discussed that with limited housing and little space to expand Marfa, permanently selling off access to nine lots could prevent future housing developments there.

Mayor Baeza said that usually land sales by the city comprised a few square feet when a builder accidentally exceeds their surveyed limits, but that this size of a sale would set a new precedent.

As council members Johnston and Melendez urged closure on the issue, Councilmember Salgado moved to deny the petitioner the purchase of the city street property, noting that the petitioners already had “use and enjoyment of the property as it is.” The motion carried unanimously, setting a new precedent for private sales of land by the city.

Attorney Todd cautioned that the city should take care to have hearings earlier on in the process, as the private purchase process is an expensive undertaking for potential buyers who have to hire appraisers and surveyors to create their proposals. Council agreed.

Other business

• The council authorized Big Bend Title to conduct research on multiple properties identified by the city’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee. The properties could be potentially used to add affordable housing stock, but no plans have been proposed yet.

• Mayor Baeza has already begun work towards a key campaign promise: to bring street repair in-house for Marfa. Council was invited to an asphalt “zipper” presentation in Alpine next week, to see if the heavy-duty machinery is an item worth purchasing.

• Councilmember Johnston informed the public that the city’s website now has Spanish available.

• The nutrition center has exceeded its budget by $4,000 as the number of Marfa residents served has increased this year. Baeza believed the number served had grown from 45 or 50 to 70 this year.

• Mayor Baeza proposed a dedicated workshop to work through the city’s new proposed “animal ordinance,” set for July 22 at 6pm. The full draft will be available to citizens on the city website. At the meeting, Annette Minjarez, an Advocate from the Big Bend Family Crisis Center presented on the correlations between animal abuse and domestic violence.