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4 make pitches for PA city manager job

By Ken Stickney

Ken.stickney@panews.com

Four candidates for the open Port Arthur city manager position made their best cases Wednesday why they should land the city’s top full-time job.

Afterwards, Mayor Derrick Freeman said he was well pleased with the quality of the finalists — 18 applied for the job — and said he thought the open session interview process went well.

Interviewing were:

  • Hani Tohme, a professional engineer and Port Arthur’s director of public services.
  • Natasha Henderson, a management consultant and former city manager in Flint, Michigan.
  • David Strahl, former city administrator for the city of O’Fallon, Missouri.
  • Henrietta Turner, city manager in Floresville, Texas.

Freeman said the City Council would schedule a meeting to discuss the candidates and their presentations at a later date, which will probably occur in executive, or private session. He said the city remains on schedule to make a final selection by March 17, their target date.

Tohme was the last to interview, as gray Wednesday skies began to lighten outside the fifth-floor City Council chambers, and his answers seemed to please council members who’d begun the arduous interview sessions shortly after 9 a.m. But council members, at turns, had seemed pleased with all of the candidates’ answers to councilmembers’ questions. All four of the candidates fielded the same or similar questions from seven councilmembers who were persistent but cordial to the visitors, who presented diverse personal backgrounds and professional experiences.

Tohme was passionate in his opening remarks, telling a personal story that began in his village childhood home in Lebanon, college in Beirut and a journey that took him to Lamar University in Beaumont to study engineering. He earned a doctorate in engineering management, worked for Beaumont’s city government and joined the city of Port Arthur in 2018. He oversaw improvements first in the Port Arthur water department and later, as director of public services, in the streets program.

He said that his short-term success has been aided by training employees, encouraging good work, demanding employee accountability and focusing on providing “superior” city services.

Tohme said the city must review current policies and make sure they are appropriate today. He said the city must establish “structures, policies and procedures” for employees that are “fair and firm,” and promised that those would protect the employees and the city.

He also suggested the city should put effort into developing Pleasure Island and said he would prioritize attention to the city’s infrastructure; find new sources of revenue, perhaps through hotels or an event center on Pleasure Island; and building a city employee team that is impassioned to serve citizens.

“I really care. I’m from here. I want to see Port Arthur succeed and develop,” he said.

Tohme followed Turner, who has served as city manager in Floresville, a town of some 7,000 near San Antonio, for five years. She, too, insisted that customer service was a prime goal in her town, which is considerably smaller than Port Arthur.

Turner said driving into downtown Port Arthur was “a little daunting,” and said part of her focus would be on generating more and better living choices in the central city. She said that didn’t mean “gentrification,” which she said involves pushing poorer people out of their neighborhoods, but encouraging development of homes in the $150,000 range.

She conceded that while her city and city budget are smaller than Port Arthur’s — she does her own typing, she said — she nonetheless deals with similar issues. She also charmed the councilmembers: She said she doesn’t travel to San Antonio to shop because Floresville has a Bealls store, which drew smiles; and told councilmembers that in dealing with people at City Hall, sometimes you had to “treat them like a husband.”

When City Councilman Cal Jones suggested Port Arthur was an especially political town, she said, “I’ve never known a city council that was not political.”

Although Strahl appeared to have the least amount of experience as a city manager — he had longtime experience as an assistant city manager — he, too, seemed to score points with his interviewers.

He compared the role of city manager to being an orchestra conductor: Although he might not be able to play every instrument, he would know what it should sound like. He also said the city manager’s role should involve presenting information, data and options to the council, while the elected leaders still held the authority to make decisions.

Henderson, now a consultant, applied for the city manager’s job in Port Arthur during a previous search. She touted a background that included service at cities of different sizes, including as large as Flint, with a population of more than 100,000.

She has been embroiled in legal action against the city since her dismissal in 2016.