Plenty of blame to go around in city manager debacle in Hobbs

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COMMENTARY: As if the presidential election hasn’t made October frightening enough – Halloween has a tough act to follow! But seriously, this month I have been horrified that the exit terms for Hobbs City Manager J.J. Murphy have been negotiated in the shadows, with no courageous watchdog in sight (at least the one you’d expect) to monitor and report on the public’s business.

Byron Marshall

Courtesy photo

Byron Marshall

We in Hobbs go through this twice each month. On a late Friday afternoon, the City of Hobbs posts to its website the commission meeting agenda for the following Monday. The state’s Open Meetings Act Compliance Guide says that the regular meeting agenda of a public body like the Hobbs City Commission “shall be available to the public and posted on the public body’s web site” at least 72 hours prior to the meeting.

One would wish that weekend hours don’t count in the 72-hour agenda-posting requirement, but sure enough, the compliance guides says it “applies regardless of whether it includes a Saturday, Sunday or holiday.”

So, say you are a Hobbs resident vigilantly watching for the agenda to be posted on the city’s website on a Friday afternoon, intermittently refreshing the home page. The agenda finally appears at 3:30 p.m., and you see for the first time the contents of the city manager’s latest amended contract. You want to submit your opinion to the editor of the local newspaper, the Hobbs News-Sun, but the paper stops accepting submissions for Sunday publication at noon the day before. The News-Sun only publishes letters to the editor on Sundays, and there is no Monday edition published. What’s the next-best option to convey your opinion on a matter of the public interest, aside from social media?

You’d like to address the Hobbs City Commission during the public comments portion of the meeting, but the mayor instructs the public at the beginning of each meeting that comments should not relate to items on the agenda, and the printed agenda reinforces the rule with the parenthetical “For non-agenda items.” OK.

So how about comments about the contract when it’s being discussed during the meeting? Nope. As you can see in the archived video of the Oct. 3 meeting (at 50:15), at no point does the mayor make public comments possible as a part of the commission’s consideration of the actual contract measure, “Consideration of Approval of an Amended Employment Agreement with City Manager J. J. Murphy.”

Fortunately for Hobbs taxpayers, approval of the amended contract, which amounted to a severance agreement, was rejected by a majority of the commissioners. Why do I say “fortunately?” Because, as his current contract reads, if he “voluntarily resigns or retires from his position,” he “shall not be entitled to the … Severance unless all or a portion of the severance is specifically approved by City Commission at that time.”

So, if he leaves the City of Hobbs for another job, receiving a severance should be a non-issue. And since he’s been diligently applying for local-government jobs for some time, we should just let him move on, instead of paying him his salary through the middle of 2018, as the amended contract reads.

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You may ask, “Well, did the News-Sun at least run a story in the Sunday issue to inform the public about the amended contract up for approval at the Monday meeting?” Nope. “Not even a list of the agenda items?” Nope. It is with blue-moon frequency that the News-Sun reports on a meeting’s agenda before the meeting. But in this rare case, someone who did know what was going to be on the agenda more than 72 hours before the meeting, Mayor Sam Cobb, was able to get a guest column about the amended contract published.

With the headline “Hobbs transitioning to new city manager,” Mayor Cobb was short on details but said “[t]he key elements of the agreement” are: “1. Cessation of employment as City Manager on or before June 1, 2017;” and “2. A continuation of Mr. Murphy’s employment as a special consultant to the Mayor and City Commission through July 2, 2018.”

Cobb called the new contract “very common when amicable separation can occur between an individual and the entity he or she is serving and there are many upcoming issues/projects to address,” because “[s]haring institutional knowledge related to these projects with his successor can provide potential cost savings to the city and eliminate project delays.”

Very common, mayor? Really? I can’t think of any common man or woman who gets the kind of treatment Murphy seems to feel entitled to. Most employers who want a separation fire bad workers. And most employees looking for new jobs put in their notice once they’ve accepted a new position. Common people don’t even think along the lines of this commission and their pampered city manager.

The city has numerous very capable, six-figure-salaried department heads who can see the city’s current projects through to completion, in addition to general contractors and other already-contracted consultants. “Continuation of (Murphy’s) salary in the amount of $180,377.60 annually,” in addition to all the other benefits, is not justifiable, particularly if he’s already taken a job elsewhere that demands his full attention.

Seriously, how many consultants do you know who charge their clients for professional development and the “travel, subsistence and registration expenses” that go along with it? And that’s not all! Rather than the city commission being required to approve expenses in advance, the new contract gives lone approval authority to the mayor. It’s been said before: this is yet another contract that exposes Murphy’s sense of entitlement.

And since the Oct. 3 meeting in which the amended contract was rejected, the News-Sun still has not reported on the contents of the contract, particularly what changes there are from Murphy’s current employment contract. Fortunately, Nick Maxwell, curator of the website wethefourth.org, developed an outline of the changes.

Possibly the most startling language in the amended contract appears to give full immunity between the city and Murphy. Replacing the section that was before called “Insurance,” the section is now called “Indemnification, Insurance and Litigation Expenses,” which is now nearly as long as Murphy’s compensation section. It states, in part, that “the parties agree to release any claims that they may have against one another for events occurring prior to the Effective Date. Murphy agrees not to bring any claims against any employee, official or agent of the City for events that have arisen or occurred prior to the Effective Date of this Agreement. The City agrees not to bring any claims against Murphy for any events that have arisen or occurred prior to the Effective Date of this Agreement.”

Just soak that in, folks. What’s happening in Hobbs sets a dangerous precedent for the rest of the state, should any other government executives decide to duplicate Murphy’s contract. I pray the Hobbs Commission stands firm and rejects any other proposed contract amendments for Murphy. The resignation and contract buyout of Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Winston Brooks serving as another recent example, no executive at any level of New Mexico government should be getting golden parachutes, legal-immunity deals and separate, secret personnel files.

In fact, I implore one or more state legislators to champion legislation that will place limits on the contracts that public bodies can negotiate and approve for executives and other public employees. Severance packages and contract buyouts have become a way to either create unmerited job security or a lucrative payday, and New Mexico taxpayers should not be on the hook.

What did Hobbs residents get from the News-Sun regarding the failed contract amendment? Almost a week after the vote on the contract, the News-Sun published a finger-wagging Sunday editorial. With the headline “Hobbs commission to blame for big contract,” the News-Sun wrote that Murphy is not to blame. While I agree that the commission has the ultimate responsibility for Murphy’s runaway contract that could be the gift that keeps on giving if commissioners get this wrong, the News-Sun went so far as to say, “So how is throwing away $106,000 of the city’s money going to change that (Murphy’s leaving)? … Hobbs residents have a right to be angry, but if they are directing their anger at Murphy then they’re sending it the wrong direction.”

All right. We won’t place the blame squarely on Murphy, and we won’t narrowly direct our anger at him. But there’s more than the commissioners deserving of residents’ scorn. The News-Sun also deserves some of the blame for where we are today and the anger that we residents feel.

The journalism and media staff of the Pew Research Center wrote, in an essay entitled “A New Journalism for Democracy in a New Age,” that “Time and again history has taught us the heavy price we pay when the independence, aggressive vigilance, accuracy and credibility of the press fails.”

On the front page of each Sunday issue, the News-Sun touts how much readers will save with the coupons inside. Through Murphy’s four years, Hobbs has paid a heavy price. Just think what we could have saved if the newspaper had asked hard questions and reported the answers along the way.

Byron Marshall is a Hobbs High graduate and former NMSU student. In 2013, Marshall returned to Hobbs from Las Cruces to support and improve his community through activism and enhanced public dialogue about important — and often overlooked — issues that merit the community’s consideration.

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