Hutto City Council has ordered audit and separation agreement reviews
Odis Jones, the new city manager of Missouri City, Texas, is an oft-mentioned name in an ongoing controversy roiling his former employer, the City of Hutto, where he left as city manager last December.
Jones joined Missouri City, which has a population of more than 75,000, in late July. (He replaced Anthony Snipes, who was terminated as city manager in February.)
During a July 16 special meeting, a divided city council voted 4-3 to hire Jones. Mayor Yolanda Ford, Mayor Pro Tem Chris Preston, Councilmember Vashaundra Edwards and Councilmember Cheryl Sterling were in favor. Councilmembers Jeffrey L. Boney, Anthony Maroulis and Floyd Emery voted against hiring Jones.
Jones was Hutto’s city manager for three years, from late 2016 to December 2019, but agreed to part ways in November 2019. Because the termination was “without cause,” the city was on the hook to pay Jones one year’s salary plus full health insurance coverage through December 31, 2020 – a severance worth more than $400,000. The parties also negotiated a seven-month, $105,000 consulting agreement that the Hutto City Council unanimously voted to end in late December. The next day, Jones provided a statement to Community Impact Newspaper saying that the deal ended at his request, the media outlet reported.
In a story about Missouri City’s new city manager choice, the Austin American-Statesman reported that Hutto, which has around 28,000 residents, had “hired a forensic audit firm to investigate how the city lost $2.8 million in reserves in the 2018-19 fiscal year. That financial shortfall led to Hutto laying off 44 employees in March.”
Like Missouri City is to Houston, Hutto is a suburb of a major Texas city – Austin.
Meanwhile, things are falling apart in Hutto.
Last week, two members of the Hutto City Council announced their resignations.
“I owe an apology to the citizens,” Scott Rose said during a Sept. 3 council meeting. He stepped down “after members of the public and other council members criticized him for signing a letter of recommendation for former City Council Manger Odis Jones,” the Statesman reported.
Mayor Pro Tem Tom Hines, who resigned on Aug. 31, said he needs to attend to his wife’s health issues. He also signed the recommendation letter for Jones.
These actions come within a week of a Hutto City Council special meeting on Aug. 27 where council members spent a half-hour discussing a proposed ordinance to void certain employee transition, severance and separation agreements, some of which paid employees long after they left the city. At the time, the city had identified about 15 of these contracts, which were released because of a public information request by media.
According to KXAN-TV, the identified separation agreements started in February 2017, shortly after Jones was hired, and the first one was signed by him. The last was signed on Dec. 6, 2019 by an assistant city manager and allowed for the human resources leader to continue to be paid up to 24 weeks “in the event she’s terminated,” the Austin TV station reported.
After the Aug. 27 discussion, council members remained unclear about agreements that did not come before them for consideration. Some said they wanted anyone subject to a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) to be released and were concerned about whether some people with agreements might have to repay money.
Hutto’s city attorney said, at that time, that some of the agreements may have been legal because they were approved through a budgetary process or under valid authority.
The Hutto City Council has authorized a forensic audit that goes back one year, which will help council members determine if the agreements went through lawful processes.
“It’s obvious we as a city don’t even know what we did here,” said councilman Mike Snyder. His motion to table voiding the agreements until late September and to direct the city attorney to craft an ordinance that lists all separation, severance and termination agreements, valid and invalid, the NDA status on each and whether money needs to be paid back passed.
The Hutto situation also ensnares a former Missouri City employee, Edena Atmore, who served as financial services director until 2018 when she was hired by Hutto as an assistant city manager. She parted ways with the City of Hutto for undisclosed reasons in 2019 and received an agreement for $59,230. Presently, Atmore is on leave from her position as the assistant city manager and finance director in Palestine, an East Texas town of roughly 18,000.
JONES RESPONDS THROUGH CITY STATEMENTS
On Aug. 31, the Houston Forward Times requested comment from City Manager Odis Jones and Mayor Yolanda Ford. Questions were sent in written form upon request from a city spokeswoman, yet did not receive a direct response. Inquiries directed to Jones asked about his response to the allegations and why the residents of Missouri City should have faith in his leadership. Mayor Ford was asked why Jones was selected as city manager over other candidates.
The city released a statement dated Sept. 1, entitled “Frequently Asked Questions: Baseless Claims Against City Manager Odis Jones” – the day after the written questions were submitted. The Houston Forward Times continues to await a response to its specific inquiries, which were requested and provided in writing – or an interview – as is customary when reporters reach out to elected officials and taxpayer-funded public servants.
In the FAQ, Mayor Ford defended Jones’ record in Hutto and denied that Missouri City needed to look into what she described as “false,” “politically motivated” and “racially motivated” allegations raised “by former and sitting councilmembers in Hutto” against Jones.
“When Mr. Jones was appointed as City Manager of Hutto in 2016, he became the first African-American CEO of the municipality and was immediately faced with multiple challenges including: an IRS review, an insolvent utility fund, a lack of development in the area, a water crisis and a City that had not balanced its checkbook in seven months,” the statement said. “Missouri City doesn’t need to launch an investigation into this unsubstantiated and unfounded smear campaign against City Manager Jones.”
The statement also quoted Jones as saying: “I would like to reiterate again that any operational decisions I made while honorably serving the City of Hutto were done with the knowledge and approval of the City Council. This includes all severance agreements, budget amendments and strategic initiatives. I take my oath and ethical obligation as a City Manager very seriously and am offended by these ongoing untruthful and unjustified attacks.”
A subsequent statement called “Focus on the Future with City Manager Odis Jones” was released on Sept. 4 outlining key objectives for his leadership of Missouri City.
AN ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT CAREER
Born and raised in Detroit, Jones graduated from Central Michigan University with a degree in sociology and earned a master’s degree in public administration from Western Michigan University.
Before arriving in Texas, he hopscotched across the Midwest and East Coast in a series of roles focused on economic development. He started his career in city government as a special projects manager in Battle Creek, Michigan.
From 2000 to 2004, Jones worked to elevate Obetz, Ohio, to a logistics hub. As CEO of the Columbus Urban Growth Corporation in Ohio, he helped redevelop Gowdy Field into a business park. After working for the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, he returned to Ohio to focus on developing the Cincinnati waterfront as the city’s economic development director.
By 2013, Jones was CEO of Detroit’s Public Lighting Authority where he focused on rebuilding the city’s system of streetlights. After that, he spent three years in Hutto and was hired in Missouri City this summer.