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City Manager search: Port Arthur Council direction unsure

The Port Arthur City Council on Monday will have a single issue to discuss in a special 3 p.m. meeting at City Hall. Anything may happen, some councilmembers suggest.

Councilmembers last Tuesday delayed voting on a resolution — it was on the council meeting agenda — authorizing the city manager to enter into an agreement with Addison, Texas-based Baker Tilly Virchow Krause to conduct an executive search for a new city manager. The contract said the search would cost $24,500.

Rather than vote in favor of Resolution No. 20970, which would have launched a professional search for a permanent city manager this week, councilmembers Harold Doucet, Kaprina Frank, Cal Jones and Raymond Scott voted Tuesday to delay a vote until the special meeting Monday. That’s when Mayor Thurman Bartie will return to Port Arthur. The mayor, who was absent last week, had asked that the vote be delayed until he could participate in any discussion.

Councilmembers Charlotte Moses and Thomas Kinlaw voted to approve the contract anyway and launch the search.

Stakes for a search were raised last week when interim City Manager Becky Underhill resigned her position, pending an appointment of a replacement by the end of next week. Underhill replaced former interim City Manager Harvey Robinson in April; Robinson had served some 18 months in the temporary role. He resigned after a search for a permanent replacement had ended in a stalemate among city councilmembers.

“We want to have a clean, smooth, viable process in place which we can follow,” said Councilmember Charlotte Moses, who worked 18 years in human resources. “We’ve had discrepancies in the past. We should utilize the search firm, take it out of the hands of city employees and put the search in the hands of a professional firm and go through the process.”

But Moses said she was uncertain what other councilmembers, especially the majority who voted to delay the search, think about turning to a professional process.

Those who voted to delay the contract include three councilmembers — Doucet, Scott and Frank — who also voted in favor last March of appointing former public works director Dr. Hani Tohme as city manager. Tohme was one of four finalists interviewed by the councilmembers in late February. Moses, Jones, Kinlaw and former Mayor Derrick Freeman favored other candidates, none of whom held a majority of votes after councilmembers voted in March. Bartie has replaced Freeman as a voting member of the council.

That March vote sparked some acrimony — atypical for this council, especially over the previous several months — because those who supported Tohme said he had ranked first among the four search finalists based on an internal councilmember scoring system. As much as Tohme drew fervent support from some councilmembers, he drew pushback from others who said that prior to taking an interim job with the city he had not fully disclosed how much private work he was doing, aside from city work, with his engineering firm. Robinson said last spring that Tohme was dismissed from his position; Section 17-42 of the City Codes seems to suggest he could not be rehired until five years after his last day of city employment.

Moses said the councilmembers should start anew in the city manager search with a clean slate.

“We cannot go backward,” she said. “We cannot regress by going back to the past candidates. We need a fresh start process.”

Councilman Cal Jones said he, too, was uncertain about how council discussions will turn Monday. Right now, he said, the council appears to be “in limbo” on the matter.

“In the beginning, we didn’t want a private firm,” Jones recollected about the last city manager search. The resolution is to hire a private firm.

“It’s confusing,” he said. “I’m curious to see what will happen, what the discussion will be.”

Bartie remained out of town Friday and said Monday’s meeting would only involve a discussion about the city manager position — one is scheduled for the executive, private session — and not a vote on the contract. The resolution remained on the agenda, though, for the Monday meeting.