Status of the Marfa Activities Center Pool, hiring of school resource officer dominate discussion at latest city council meeting 

MARFA — Tuesday night’s regular city council meeting saw a full council for the first time in months with newly-appointed Councilmember Jason Ballmann filling the fifth and final seat as the governing body discussed Marfa Activities Center Pool operations with concerned citizens and heard from Superintendent of Marfa ISD Oscar Aguero regarding the hiring of a school resource officer for campus security. 

Present were Mayor Manny Baeza, Mayor Pro Tem Irma Salgado, council members Raul Lara, Eddie Pallarez, Mark Cash, Jason Ballmann, City Manager Mandy Roane and City Attorney Teresa Todd. President of the Blackwell School Alliance Gretel Enck spoke during the introductory citizen comment period to promote an upcoming meeting at the Blackwell School occurring this Sunday afternoon in which the community will discuss the historic school’s potential transformation into a national historic site.

Next, the council voted to schedule a public hearing and special meeting at 6 p.m. on August 15 at the Visitors Center (USO) in which citizens will have the opportunity to ask questions regarding hotel occupancy tax (HOT) rules, regulations and legislation. Staff from the Texas Hotel & Lodging Association will be present. Council then heard from around 10 active users of the MAC Pool, some which identified as “Marfa Mermaids,” who were there to lobby council for increased pool hours and a longer swimming season.

“We have a whole bunch of questions and a whole bunch of ladies,” said Belinda Dominguez, introducing the group as the first presenter approached the wooden podium to address the council. 

The plight of the pool goers, who took to the podium one by one to state their names and how long they’ve lived in Marfa, was that they had too little access to the pool, which many stated was of utmost importance to their physical health. Others emphasized the role of the pool in a community where there’s little for children to do, suggesting the creation of swimming classes or an MISD swim team. (Roane later clarified the pool is not a competition-level pool and therefore not ideal for a competitive swim team.) Some offered to help raise funds to hire more lifeguards.

Hester Ann White began her appeal with a frank, “I’ve probably been a resident of Marfa longer than any of you,” and asked who all recalled the bygone days when the pool was an open air facility and Brit Webb, now deceased, served as the lifeguard. 

“We are under-utilizing this asset, and the last thing we need to do is to reduce its purpose,” said White. “It should not be neglected. It should be a top priority and maybe Brit will whisper in your ear.” 

Rounds of applause followed each presenter. Annette Mendoza prompted all those in City Hall’s Casner Room who enjoyed swimming in the pool to please stand, to which she joked about never having seen them all clothed because they were always in their bathing suits. Mendoza went on to list the health benefits of swimming and said spending time in the pool allowed her to heal from a recent broken arm. 

“I don’t believe you have to drive down to Chinati Hot Springs for a therapeutic effect in the water. You can enjoy our local swimming pool,” said Mendoza. 

When the swimmers concluded their addresses to council, City Manager Roane was the first to respond, stating she hated to be the Debbie Downer but that the main challenge with the pool was finding enough lifeguards. In reopening the pool this year, the city had a difficult time attracting lifeguards and getting them trained with instructors also in short supply. 

“We’re already stretched very thin. Those are our real issues. We can’t find more lifeguards,” said Roane. 

She said the pool will actually need to be partially closed July 27-31 because they don’t have enough staff to monitor both the shallow and deep ends with one of the lifeguards going on summer vacation. Roane said pool closure dates and details would be available on the city’s website soon.

“I appreciate how much you guys enjoy the pool, I do — and I wish we could say ‘Oh, yeah, we’re just going to add the hours.’ Logistically, we can’t even have both ends open for next week.” 

Mayor Pro Tem Salgado suggested that perhaps one of the mermaids could become a certified lifeguard and volunteer their time to increase pool open hours. But after further discussion about what all lifeguard training entails — diving to the bottom of a 12-foot pool and being able to safely bring someone up to the surface who could have suffered a spinal injury — most agreed being a professional lifeguard was no easy feat. 

Todd suggested in the future more committed adult workers — not just seasonal high school lifeguards — needed to help run the pool. Because the pool is only open for another 30 days this season, discussion moved to what the group could do to help plan for summer 2023. In the end, council voted to approve the formation of a MAC Pool committee which will further hash out details on how to attract lifeguards, fundraise, and more. Council members Pallarez and Ballmann agreed to represent the city in the said committee, and the mermaids were instructed to provide a list of their committee members to the city. 

Next up was Superintendent Aguero, who spoke to council members about the district’s plan to hire a school resource office (SRO) for the coming school year for an added layer of campus security. The city and school district recently worked together to apply for a federally-funded Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant, which would fund 75% of the officer’s salary for three years with the school paying the remaining 25% and the entire salary for a fourth year. While they had not yet received news about whether or not they would be awarded the grant, and were unsure when that news would arrive, Aguero said the district was proceeding with hiring an SRO regardless and would fund the position themselves. 

“We’re hoping for the grant to come in, but it is something we are committed to doing as the district,” said Aguero. 

The SRO will exist under the umbrella of the Marfa Police Department and the district would reimburse the city for the officer’s salary and benefits. The school is budgeting $18 an hour or more, commensurate with experience, said Aguero, and may have a housing option available for the SRO. Because the school officer would not need to work weekends or during the summer when school is out, the city could potentially utilize Operation Lonestar grant money to pay them to perform administrative office work, Roane suggested. 

The Marfa Police Department is currently hiring for one additional officer as well. It is possible that they won’t be able to find anyone who wants the job, said Aguero. The officer’s primary duties would be to build relationships with the students and provide peace of mind to parents, said Aguero. 

Aguero discussed ongoing efforts to increase and improve security cameras on campus as well as bring in various law enforcement entities to familiarize themselves with the school’s layout. He said Marfa PD will continue to have a presence at the school during sporting events as well as daily drop off and pick up, but the district is seeking a full-time police presence. The option of allowing teachers to carry firearms through the School Marshal or Guardian program were brought up in school board meetings earlier this summer, but at Tuesday’s city council meeting Aguero said he was wary of the measures. 

“We looked at the Marshal Program. That is an option, but I’ll be honest with you, it scares me,” said Aguero. 

In the recent active shooter training the local officers participated in, he said, participants were instructed to attack whoever in the school has a gun — the presence of armed teachers might make such a situation more dangerous, he said. In the meantime, council voted unanimously to support the school in the hiring of a school resource officer for the 2022-2023 school year. 

In other news, which rounded out the meeting, council voted to put out requests for proposals (RFP) for financial director services in order to have more checks and balances on the city’s accounting, and voted to turn North Gonzales St. between Lincoln and Columbia streets from a one-way back into a two-way street.