Marfa council approves thrift store tenants and technical issues delay city manager vote

MARFA — Marfa City Council gathered on August 31 for a meeting to hear Marfa ISD’s reopening plan, approve language to accept bids for a cardboard removal contract and allow the Marfa and Presidio County Museum to relocate their thrift store into the MAC building. But after technical difficulty struck the virtual Zoom meeting, additional agenda items were left incomplete and council abruptly adjourned early.

The regular city meeting last Thursday was canceled due to technical difficulties and Monday’s special meeting was added in its place. On Monday night, the meeting began with council hearing presentations and discussing new business. But later in the evening, when the council went into executive session to discuss filling the position of city manager, the city’s open Zoom meeting shut down, leaving the media and attendees unable to return for the rest of the meeting.

Council can go into executive session, where the public and media are not able to listen in, but in the digital age, that means entering a separate online meeting, which this time around, accidentally closed down the virtual public gathering space of the main Zoom meeting. Council, after discussing details regarding hiring a new city manager in executive session, returned to a new Zoom window, since the old one was gone.

“We’re going to have to end this meeting due to technical difficulties,” Mayor Manny Baeza announced. Since the new meeting link had not been advertised to the public, City Attorney Teresa Todd urged the council to end the meeting without taking any action.

Councilmember Buck Johnston asked if the council could at least complete their second executive session, even without taking action, but Todd replied, “I would advise not going forward, now that we know there’s a problem.”

A visibly frustrated council reluctantly voted to adjourn the meeting, and Councilmember Natalie Melendez offered a sentiment, “We’re all just figuring out how to navigate through this new way of meeting. It happens.”

Prior to the sudden ending, council began the meeting hearing from MISD Superintendent Oscar Aguero about the impending school reopening.

“The opening of the school is not just a school situation; it’s a situation that involves the entire community,” Aguero told council on Monday. School is slated to begin September 8, with face-to-face instruction starting September 14 for those who want it, so Aguero was there to present plans and answer questions. “Remote instruction will be offered all year long, but so will face-to-face,” he told the council.

Within the school reopening plans were details like prohibiting visitors for meals and big plans to teach and reinforce hygiene for students. “It may sound silly,” Aguero said, but the school will even go as far as covering the basics of how to properly wash hands.

Interior doors will stay open as much as possible to limit the number of people touching the same surface, though for school safety, exterior doors will have to remain closed. The school purchased plexiglass dividers for classrooms where desks could not be six feet apart, electrostatic sanitizing machines and hand sanitizer for students entering or leaving a room.

Councilmember Irma Salgado asked why taking students’ temperature was not included in the precautions being taken at MISD. Aguero said the reasoning was that most children are asymptomatic, and the temperature-taking apparatus becomes less reliable the more uses it gets, going “way low or way high.” They would only be taking temperatures for faculty and staff.

“Early in the summer we had one person come out positive, but the day they came in, they were asymptomatic, they did not have a temperature,” Aguero explained.

Recesses will be staggered, playground equipment will be off-limits and classes will release at various times to limit the number of students in the hallway at the same time.

And while the governor’s mask laws only apply to those 10 years and older, Aguero said masks were incorporated into the dress code, so all students must wear them. Still, the return to face-to-face classes has been delayed for younger students for two to three more weeks, because it is difficult to figure out mask-wearing for classes as young as pre-kindergarten.

“We have not decided on pep rallies, just because I haven’t figured out a safe way to do that,” Aguero said.

A parent attending the meeting, Hannah Siegel-Gardner, asked Aguero how shutdown protocol worked for those in family units. For example, if a student was COVID-19 positive, their class would go completely virtual. But if that student had a sibling living in the same household, would their class be considered exposed and go online as well?

Aguero said, “The latest CDC guideline says we don’t quarantine close contact, and that kind of goes against everything they’ve said in the past,” but the school is “trying to get more information” about what policies they should follow in that circumstance.

“The safest place for our kids is at home. The best place for our kids is at school,” Aguero said, explaining that over summer breaks, students typically regress, losing about two months-worth of instruction they had learned the previous year. Now six months out from the initial COVID-19 shutdowns, Aguero said education experts are saying students have likely regressed to the level of the beginning of last year. “They’re coming in to us a year behind,” he said.

He thanked the city for their efforts to keep COVID-19 cases down, saying it was “what’s allowing us to open up.” But still, reopening is very fluid. “If we have an outbreak this week, we won’t likely bring kids in on September 14,” Aguero said.

In other business, the city will soon begin seeking bids for contracts to transport recycled cardboard out of the Marfa recycling center. Since a slowdown in the global recycling market last year, largely driven by China ceasing much of its recycled material purchasing, Marfa has had a cardboard buildup. The center, next to the Marfa dump, has piles of cardboard, vulnerable to rain and wind, and the city had no easy solution to protect the mounds of cardboard, as companies have stopped accepting jobs to pick up and remove Marfa’s recycling.

The new bids will be for a contract to take Marfa’s mountains of cardboard to El Paso for recycling.

Council also unanimously voted to allow the Marfa and Presidio County Museum Thrift Store to move into a city building. The museum was in “desperate straits” seeking a new location for its shop, according to museum board member Mary Williams, and was struggling to find affordable commercial rent around town. But as Marfa’s council has worked to open up old office space in city buildings to businesses for rental, the thrift store found a potential new home at the Marfa Activity Center.

In the southwest corner of the building, 10 offices previously used by the health department are now slated to become a home for the thrift store, which has been open for more than 35 years, according to Williams.

After a brief debate over utilities and rent costs, the city agreed to put forward a 12-month lease agreement that charges the museum a $425 monthly rent, plus electric utilities and a $250 refundable cleaning deposit.

Council will meet again on Friday, September 4 to discuss and take action on “the potential promotion of Community Services Director Mandy Roane to the position of Marfa city manager” and to adjust the classification and job description of City Secretary Chelsea Smith.