Hobbs manager’s contract evolution exposes sense of entitlement

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City Hall in Hobbs, N.M.

Courtesy photo

City Hall in Hobbs, N.M.

COMMENTARY: The Hobbs City Commission met in closed session on June 8, June 29 and June 30 to review City Manager J.J. Murphy’s annual performance evaluation – his third – as well as his contract, which has been revised more times than years he has served as city manager. Before the commission amends his contract yet again, I think reviewing his contract’s chronology in total is importantly informative.

Jeanie Coates

Courtesy photo

Jeanie Coates

With guidance from outgoing City Manager Eric Honeyfield, Hobbs city commissioners voted unanimously at their regular April 2, 2012, meeting that minimum qualifications of the next city manager would be:

  • Bachelor’s degree in related field and 15 years municipal experience; or master’s of public administration and 10 years municipal experience
  • Minimum four years as city manager or assistant city manager in community of at least 20,000 population, or general fund budget of at least $20 million, or at least 300 city employees
  • Minimum five years supervision experience with public-employee labor unions
  • Established, verifiable history of successful partnerships with community leaders and related entities

The commission also approved a minimum starting pay of $130,000 plus benefits.

About six weeks later, the City of Hobbs announced four finalists from a field of about 55 applicants. Within days, however, the city’s top pick, an assistant city manager from the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex and former city manager of Snyder, Texas, declined the city’s offer. The city scrapped its other finalists and announced it was starting over with its search.

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After reducing the minimum qualifications and raising the minimum starting salary to $135,000 plus benefits, out of the second search the city commission unanimously voted to select Murphy following a motion by Commissioner John Boyd and a second by Commissioner Joe Calderon.

Murphy’s résumé says he worked for the City of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., from 2002 to 2010, serving as city administrator from 2004. It also says he worked as a special assistant to the mayor from 1996-1997. Murphy’s website, jjmurphycitymanager.com, says he worked as an intern for that city during his senior year of college.

Upon his hiring on Aug. 23, 2012, it was announced that he would receive a salary of $140,000, but Murphy went much further, negotiating an initial contract that was remarkable in its scope for a new manager. To wit, Murphy’s initial contract provided:

  • 5-year term
  • $140,000 salary
  • Accrue paid time off at a rate of 15 hours per month, beginning with a balance of 160 hours
  • Holiday, health, dental and vision insurance and other benefits enjoyed by other city employees
  • $750 monthly vehicle allowance
  • Association membership dues and subscriptions
  • Travel, fees and other expenses for conferences and professional development
  • Travel, registration and other expenses for educational courses, institutes and seminars
  • Up to $5,000 in moving expenses, including lodging, meals and interim housing
  • Public Employee Retirement Association benefits enjoyed by other city employees
  • $20,000 housing incentive for down payment and closing costs on primary residence
  • If terminated, severance of six months’ salary, benefits, personal leave, vacation and other benefits in periodic cash payments
  • No reduction of benefits at any time

Before Murphy’s first work anniversary, he began seeking better terms for his five-year contract. The commission amended his contract without discussion, approving the changes he proposed without debate or public input by placing the matter on the consent agenda, where routine items are supposed to be decided in one fell swoop.

First contract amendment

As a consent-agenda Item, June 3, 2013 (view here)
Boyd moved, Calderon seconded; unanimous 7-0 vote

  • Moving allowance increased from $5,000 to $7,500
  • Housing incentive increased to up to $50,000 (after pushing for its approval at an April 1, 2013, commission meeting, Murphy helped himself to the police officer-recruitment housing incentive that was discontinued one year later)

Then, when his first anniversary did arrive, Murphy boldly doubled-down to improve his contract terms even further.

Second contract amendment

Aug. 19, 2013 (view here)
Boyd moved, Commissioner Marshall Newman seconded; unanimous 7-0 vote

  • More than 15.5 percent salary increase, from $142,700 to $165,000
  • Paid-time-off accrual increased from 15 hours per month to 18 hours per month
  • Allowance up to $7,000 per year for family travel in the event of an illness or death involving an immediate family member
  • Severance doubled, from six months to one year, to be paid in a lump sum unless otherwise agreed to, and itemizing other benefits to be included in severance as:
  1. Health insurance for city manager and all dependents
  2. Life insurance
  3. Short-term and long-term disability
  4. Car allowance
  5. Any other available benefits

After his second anniversary passed, it was time again for Murphy to bring up that his contract lacked a perk. Once again, the commission didn’t blink.

Third contract amendment

Oct. 6, 2014 (view here)
Boyd moved, Commissioner Jonathan Sena seconded; unanimous 7-0 vote

  • More than 5 percent salary increase, from $165,000 to $173,349 (For perspective’s sake, Las Cruces City Manager Robert Garza, a professional engineer, former assistant city manager and former public works director with the city for 16 years, makes $179,827; as of last fall, the City of Albuquerque’s chief administrative officer and former city attorney, Robert J. Perry, made $154,169.)
  • Paid-time-off accrual increased from 18 hours per month to 20 hours per month
  • In addition to PERA benefits enjoyed by other city employees, he negotiated up to 5 percent of his annual compensation to be contributed to a 401(a) money purchase pension plan, initially funded with approximately $14,000.

The Wilkes-Barre Times Leader reported that when Murphy assumed the role of Wilkes-Barre’s city administrator in 2004, his salary was $66,000. When he left the City of Wilkes-Barre in 2010, his salary was $81,120. Some might say you can’t blame Murphy for asking for and taking as much as he can get from the City of Hobbs, since it is ultimately our commissioners who consented to these princely benefits, but the audacity that underlies each revision is truly stunning.

We can only imagine what else Murphy believes he’s entitled to and has asked the commission to rubber-stamp through this latest contract review. What’s next? Since the Lea County commission agreed to an automatic three-year extension to Lea County manager Mike Gallagher’s new $185,000, five-year contract, I have my money on Murphy not being outdone. Either way, the taxpayers will pay the price.

Jeanie Coates is a Hobbs resident and conservative activist focusing on property rights, government accountability, election integrity and government transparency.

CORRECTION: A prior version of this commentary incorrectly stated that Murphy didn’t meet the minimum qualifications the city commission set before hiring him, and that his starting pay — $140,000 — was the same that the outgoing city manager, Honeyfield, was making at the time of his departure. Read more about the correction here.

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