PA minus three department heads from staff shake-up

Published 7:22 pm Monday, July 13, 2015

City Manager Bryan McDougal made good on a promise made to citizens to provide more effective government with key personnel changes made in the last few days that leave the city without a finance director at the beginning of the new budget cycle.
Gone also is the city’s Human Resources director and the Transit Director.
Deborah Echols, Port Arthur’s finance director, submitted her resignation Monday, which was accepted by the city manager. The resignation is effectively immediately.
Echol’s departure comes on the heels of forced changes made Friday when Human Resources Director/Parks and Recreation Director Albert Thigpen was allowed to retire. Thigpen had been with the city for 30 years.
Also on Friday, Transit Director Colleen Russell’s position was eliminated.
McDougal said none of the staffing changes had anything to do with criminal activity, but rather was an effort to improve city government.
Both Thigpen and Russell’s departures were effective immediately, and included a three-month severance package.
“The City Council hired to because they thought I was the right person for the job to streamline their city and provide more efficient and effective services to the citizens of Port Arthur,” McDougal told The News Monday.
McDougal said he had several conversations with Thigpen about changes that needed to be made, but found the HR director to be resistant to change.
“The vetting of city employees and the investigation of their backgrounds was an issue,” McDougal said.
Russell’s job loss was more the result of a need to streamline the Transit Department, McDougal said.
Transit Manager Ronald McelHose will take over Russell’s position, which will not be replaced.
“That department was top-heavy,” McDougal said.
The city has for the past several months been looking for a new parks director, a position that Thigpen held in addition to his human resources duties.
McDougal plans to take on Thigpen’s duties until someone else is hired for the two positions.
Echols’ leaving comes at a time when she worked closely with the city manager to submit a new fiscal year budget, a time when that position is key.
McDougal said he had not been happy with Echol’s performance because of the lateness of the city’s audit and issues relating to a forensic audit called for by residents who organized a petition drive asking that the city look into its financial records.
Echols did not receive a severance package.
McDougal said he plans to bring someone in to assist with the budget process, but that person will not be an existing employee.
“I will announce next week who the interim Finance Director will be. That person will likely be from out of town,” he said.
McDougal said he was taken by surprise at Echol’s resignation in the middle of the budget cycle.
The departures of Echols, Thigpen and Russell add to other key vacant positions in the city.
Public Works Director Sue Polka left the city’s employment recently to take a job as chief engineer with the city of Pearland.
Polka had been Port Arthur’s public works director for less than a year when she departed.
The city is conducting an active application process right now for the public works director position.
Still vacant are two assistant city manager positions. One of those, to replace John Comeaux, who retired recently, is funded. The second assistant  to the city manager position was held by former finance director Becky Underhill, who left the city’s employment to take a job as finance director for League City in Sept. 2012.
Underhill’s position was not funded this last budget cycle. McDougal plans to ask that the position be funded in the new budget.
Port Arthur has also lost its purchasing director after Shawna Tubbs left the city’s employment to take a job as purchasing manager in League City.
The recent departures, McDougal said, will provide opportunity to build a team from the ground up that understand their roles, and passes that understanding on to city employees.
McDougal said he does not know if there will be any more changes to city staff at this time.
“What I tell my staff is everybody come to work every day and do the work you were hired to do,” McDougal said.
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