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Interviews don’t cover red-flag topics

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Despite questions from a citizens advisory committee in front of a few members of the community, several issues were left untouched in an interview session with three Killeen city manager finalists Friday.

Candidates were not given the chance to address red flags that have popped up in their past jobs.

No such issues had surfaced for finalist Daniel Biles other than limited experience in city management.

Related: Public gets first look at city manager finalists

Finalist Ron Olson had been city manager in Corpus Christi for five years until resigning suddenly in May. Finalist John “J.J.” Murphy is the city manager in Hobbs, N.M. Both have history the committee didn’t question.

Ron Olson

Corpus Christi’s water system has had a series of problems over the past two years that ultimately led to Olson’s resignation from his post. The city was expected to pay more than $500,000 in corrective requirements and an additional $6,000 in penalties.

Under Olson’s watch, the city issued three boil orders, in July and September 2015 and in May.

The first order was linked to the presence of E. coli in the water, while the second and third were linked to low levels of disinfecting agents in their water supply.

After the first two orders, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality determined the city’s pipes were in disrepair, a condition the city had done little to remedy, according to the commission’s July investigation report into the incidents.

In early May, the city’s pipes again began experiencing low levels of disinfectant caused by an influx of nitrogen-rich rainwater into the system, according to an October report on the TCEQ’s investigation into the third boil order.

A tip to TCEQ in May spurred the original investigation, and the ensuing crisis led to unrest that rippled through the city government, according to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

When Olson departed, he repeatedly referenced his own responsibility in not addressing the orders, but also mentioned that his determination in the position began to waver after residents who lugged water bottles into their homes for days criticized the city. He also cited the long-term slowing of his city hall overhauls.

Olson entered his position in 2011 with a seemingly blank check from the city council to effect an ambitious restructuring of the city government that downsized the number of city departments and city employees.

When a new council was elected, that broad support came to an end and Olson struggled to keep up the pace. Despite a three-year contract extension in February, Olson ultimately tendered his resignation minutes before a city council meeting May 17 that left questions about Olson’s ability to withstand criticism and his inability to stay with the city long enough to remedy the ongoing water crisis.

“I went there to make a difference in how the city runs, and I think I made some really good strong progress for the first 3½ years, and the last year and a half we stalled out,” Olson said. “I didn’t see any change coming. As I looked at it, I projected that the next number of years was going to be slow, hard, not much progress; so that and combined with the water situation, I was really looking for somewhere where I could go and make a difference.”

Around the same time as the Corpus Christi water crisis began to unfold, problems surfaced with road infrastructure. In July, one of the city’s youngest neighborhoods began to have visible problems.

Summer Wind Drive was supposed to last for 30 years, but just three years later, its asphalt was in a “sea of waves” according to the Caller-Times. There were a number of theories as to why the infrastructure didn’t last, but among them was that the houses on that street were not already built before the road was paved. The added stress from trucks constantly carrying equipment back and forth proved to be too much stress, too fast.

In an August city council meeting, members expressed a desire to stop “kicking the can down the road.” Residential, feeder and arterial streets alike needed work, and short-term solutions would only put off issues at hand for a couple of years.

Later in August, voters were made aware that they’ll have the option to choose between either a bond program or a route to raise property taxes in order to attempt to fund residential street reconstruction. That will be voted on in November, and the work is estimated to cost $881 million, according to the Caller-Times.

Meanwhile, the work still hasn’t come to an end, with a proposed increase of $22 million dollars for capital improvement projects — including road and water infrastructure repairs — in the 2017 budget.

Despite his early changes at city hall, the end of Olson’s term in Corpus Christi was defined by long-term infrastructure issues that weren’t as visible as his early achievements.

“It wasn’t that I wasn’t making progress, it wasn’t that we weren’t getting things done; we were,” he said after the committee interview Friday, “But it wasn’t as big, and it wasn’t as dramatic as the first 3½ years.”

John ‘J.J.’ Murphy

Murphy’s past dealings have been heavily scrutinized. He had championed two city contracts while serving as city manager that the New Mexico state auditor’s office said raise “the appearance that the contracts may not have been at arm’s length.” Despite that, he said, “my bread and butter is private-public partnerships.”

In a one-on-one interview with the Herald, Murphy addressed several questions about his past. He said that he and two other colleagues took a $7,741 trip to Italy to check out a pool system because there was no comparable system in the United States. He claimed that the trip was offered to him and the other Hobbs, N.M., city officials for free, but when he approached his ethics committee, they said he was not allowed to accept a free trip.

The city required the trip to cost less than $10,000, and when the price came back, it was OK’d. He also said the trip ended up saving the city money in the long run, because they realized they would need to substitute materials that likely would have required replacement sooner.

Murphy also had been an administrator in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where a federal grand jury had probed Murphy’s business dealings after he resigned.

In that case, documentation concerning a 2012 agreement between Murphy’s consulting group, Goals Consulting, and the Wilkes-Barre Parking Authority to aid in a leasing contract was subpoenaed as part of a widespread corruption probe into the city.

Murphy’s company was contracted with the authority at the same time as the Fox Rothschild law firm, with which Murphy’s brother — Patrick Murphy — was a partner. Patrick Murphy now is undersecretary of the Army.

John Murphy’s connections in Pennsylvania were questioned at his current job in Hobbs.

Nick Maxwell, with wethefourth.org, a New Mexico-based online government watchdog outlet, reported the state auditor’s office had raised concern about two city contracts Murphy had championed while serving as city manager.

Concern arose over the city’s procurement practices for contracts with Medico Consulting Group, for waste and recycling services, and from Zarwin, Baum, Devito, Kaplan, Schaer & Toddy PC, for legal services related to the police department’s video surveillance network. Both of the firms are based in Pennsylvania.

kyleb@kdhnews.com | 254-501-7567

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