Tohme: Private projects posed problem

Dr. Hani Tohme’s bid to become Port Arthur’s city manager was undercut by his private company’s contracts within the city, including some in the vicinity of Jimmy Johnson Boulevard and the Babe Zaharias Golf Course, which are critical spots for municipal projects that he also oversaw.

An open records request by The Port Arthur News of permits linked to Tohme, who is a professional engineer, showed Tohme’s private civil engineering firm has worked on the development of dining spots Tia Juanita’s and Anna’s Bakery at 3400 Jimmy Johnson Blvd., and shell work for a building at 3350 Jimmy Johnson Blvd. and Seafood and Wings, which was not yet permitted in the 4000 block of Jimmy Johnson.

All of those projects rest between the boulevard, which has been cited by the city as a significant problem area for flooding, and the golf course, where the city hopes to use ponds and drainage for water retention to offset the threat of business and residential flooding.

Some City Council members have said Tohme was not fully open with them about the extent of his private work in the city, both before he started working for Port Arthur and after he was employed, and said he appeared to be reticent about signing documents pertaining to conflicts of interest.

To a person, high-ranking city leaders said both on the record and off the record that Tohme’s work was excellent while he did city work.

“Thank God we had Dr. Tohme for the time we did,” said Councilwoman Charlotte Moses, who said he did “a great job” and that she appreciated his “personality and friendship.” Yet, Moses held abiding concerns about Tohme’s private contract work — which has been growing — and what she perceived as reluctance to be fully forthcoming about his jobs in Port Arthur.

Councilwoman Kaprina Frank said she was not troubled that Tohme had outside, private work.

“We knew the man had an engineering firm,” she said, when the city hired Tohme. She said he was not pressed to sign paperwork about potential conflicts of interests until well after he was employed by the city.

“You do that at the beginning, not in the middle and say we should have done that at the beginning,” she said.

Frank said Tohme should have been allowed to finish the private work he started.

“He couldn’t stop the contracts he started,” she said. “We’re talking about business here.”

Tohme signed on for city service in early 2018 at a time when the city’s water department was in disarray, both for billing and for delivery. City leaders were aware that he would continue his private practice, as well. He refigured rates, created special work crews to address problem areas and stabilized the water department, even preparing it for growth with plans for new facilities. Under his guidance, the department began to pay for itself, instead of drawing money from the General Fund.

Later, Tohme took over oversight of public works for the city, and helped Port Arthur pursue an aggressive Fiscal Year 2019 program for addressing potholes and paving and repairing city streets. The street program was well ahead of schedule, and work crews appeared to be ready to take on Fiscal Year 2020’s scheduled projects months ahead of schedule.

Tohme was one of four finalists for the city manager position. The others were:

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

The job pays in the $140,000 to $170,000 range.

The City Council voted this week to widen the search, which will include reviewing the applications of all 18 who applied initially and adding additional candidates. The city is advertising for new applicants and will accept new applications through April 17.

A matrix of applicant qualifications showed Henderson, Strahl and Turner met most of the qualifications set down by the city in its search, while Hani met only two: minimum of 10 years of managerial service in a municipality and experience as a city manager or assistant city manager in a city of 50,000 population or greater. Henderson met five benchmarks; Turner and Strahl, four each.

In the matrix, Tohme was listed as not meeting the standard on a designation as a credentialed manager — he holds a doctorate in engineering management — diverse exposure to all aspects of managing a full-service municipality or organization, experienced management in a diverse community — he was a longtime employee in Beaumont city government — and experience as a city manager or assistant city manager in a city of 50,000 or greater.

Among applicants who were not chosen as finalists, Charles Jackson, city manager in Pearsall, Texas; and Ricardo Jose Mendez, an engineer with an MBA, both met five benchmarks. Jackson said Friday he was never contacted; he said he has since taken another position on the Texas coast, which he will start in May. Mendez could not be reached.

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