Marfa hires John Washburn as city manager

MARFA – City council unanimously voted to hire John Washburn to fill the vacant city manager position during a Marfa City Council meeting last Thursday evening. The new-hire’s first day at city hall was Monday, and Washburn began by holding lengthy meetings with city staff to better understand the city.

In a previous meeting, Councilmember Irma Salgado was the sole vote against offering the contract to Washburn, but at the most recent meeting where contract terms were accepted, Salgado joined Councilmembers Yoseff Ben-Yehuda, Raul Lara, Natalie Melendez and Buck Johnston in voting to hire Washburn.

Washburn comes to Marfa from a finance director position in Richwood, Texas, a town just shy of 4,000 citizens near the Gulf Coast. He has served in a finance director role for eight different cities as well as working stints as city administrator and interim city manager elsewhere.

In Marfa, Washburn said his first order of business is to meet the staff, understand the current organization chart, see how everybody cooperates and communicates and determine who is responsible for what. That process will last for a week or two, and then Washburn said he will shift into gear and begin reviewing policies and ordinances the city currently has in place. Then he will sit down with council and review priorities.

Explaining his background, Washburn told The Big Bend Sentinel, “I started out as an administrative assistant in Rockport, worked my way through various offices and was cross-trained through a variety of city departments.” Washburn has worked for cities since 1987. He went back to college with the help of a city employer, earning an accounting degree from Texas A&M Corpus Christi.

According to his resume, the new city manager guided the small Texas city of Cuero through its first comprehensive planning process, has experience with Capital Improvement Program planning and has managed multi-million dollar bond issuances for capital improvement projects.

Before taking the role, Washburn said, “I still have a lot to contribute. I have the skills and abilities, and if I’m going to use them I’d like to do it in an interesting place.” Speaking about his then-pending application in Marfa, he said, “It’s a very exciting opportunity. I haven’t really been seeking positions that don’t excite me. I think Marfa does that for me.”

Washburn also spoke about the benefits of bringing a finance background into a city manager role, saying that tracking city finances makes one aware of almost everything that’s going on “because everything boils down to, ‘Can we afford it?’” he said. The new city manager plans to have a hands on approach in overseeing finances for the city of Marfa.

The city also hired Christina Lujan as bookkeeping clerk, and she began at city hall on Monday as well. Lujan, a Marfa-native who returned from San Antonio to take the position, will help take on responsibilities from Dan Dunlap, a current contract accountant for the city.

The city has put a few decisions on hold while waiting for a city manager to be in place. Council discussed restructuring or abolishing some jobs, like the assistant to the city manager position, during their September budget meetings, but decided to wait until the new city manager was in-office and able to give input. They also held off on interviewing and hiring for other positions until the city manager role was filled. Currently the assistant to the city manager and city secretary positions are vacant.

At the Thursday meeting, before the vote to hire Washburn, council discussed a problem with persistent lateness within the public works department and agreed to wait to address it until the city manager was hired. During the council comment period, Councilmember Melendez raised the concern of employee lateness, and Councilmember Lara and Mayor Manny Baeza said they were also aware of the tardiness of some staff.

However, Lara and Melendez agreed that the issue should be addressed with the new city manager present, wanting his input about instituting a clock-in system or seeking other solutions.

The city manager job was vacant since former City Manager Terry Brechtel left the position in June. In the meantime, former Assistant to the City Manager Peggy O’Brien and Dunlap shared responsibilities as co-interim city managers.

Speaking about his goals going forward, Washburn said he would eventually like to re-start the Marfa comprehensive plan, which would be a guide for the city council based on the needs and wants of Marfa’s citizens.

“I’m thrilled and excited to be here, and so far I’ve enjoyed the reception by staff, council and citizens I’ve met,” Washburn said Wednesday. “I intend to have an open door policy. I’m here to listen, and I’m here to help where I can, when I can and how I can.” Ultimately he hopes to “develop a collective vision that works well, with solutions that endure and have lasting value.”