A perfect storm of unfortunate events has left the city secretary managing Hitchcock’s affairs while a recently hired consulting firm tries to help the city assess its financial picture and fortify operations.
The city of Hitchcock in the past few months has experienced a maelstrom of setbacks, which began with Hurricane Harvey in late August and got worse when Mayor Anthony Matranga was hospitalized, said C.B. “Bix” Rathburn, a former county economic development director who resigned in June to become an independent consultant.
City commissioners voted Tuesday to empower Mayor pro tem Randy Stricklind to negotiate a deal with Rathburn to evaluate Hitchcock’s financial situation, operational structure and staffing and to eventually help in selecting an interim city administrator to oversee daily operations.
Commissioners could eventually hire a full-time city administrator, Rathburn said.
“This is an option that may or may not work for the city,” Rathburn said. “I am not the person to oversee daily operations at the city, but it’s clear Hitchcock is at a crossroads. My proposal is to assess where the city is financially with staff and everything else.”
Parts of Hitchcock, just north of Galveston Bay and west of Interstate 45, were hit hard by Hurricane Harvey, which made landfall Aug. 25 in Rockport, 200 miles south of the county, and moved up the Texas coast.
The storm dumped more than 50 inches of rain in some parts of this county, swelling creeks and bayous and flooding an estimated 20,000 homes in the county and devastating parts of Houston.
Shortly after the storm, Matranga found himself hospitalized briefly, he said.
While Matranga was out of the hospital by Tuesday’s special meeting, his role in the city’s operations is reduced, commissioners said.
Matranga, who is retired, had previously headed the city’s operations as Hitchcock does not have a city manager.
Debris removal also became an immediate concern for cities when the cleanup began; but Hitchcock, with a population of about 7,800 people, didn’t have a contract on hand, officials said. Hitchcock City Hall also sustained heavy damage during the storm.
Commissioners on Tuesday told Lucy Dieringer she was in charge of managing city staff for the time being.
“Lucy, we are counting on you to step up and run things,” Commissioner Mark Cook said. “That doesn’t mean you have to do everything, but you do have to manage everyone.”
Dieringer takes over managing operations during a critical time for the city.
Hitchcock has 60 days to document and work through all the necessary paperwork to get reimbursed for Hurricane Harvey damage through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Dieringer said. It needs the help of an engineering firm to get that done, officials said.
“We still have not officially gone out for an RFP (request for proposal) for an engineering firm,” said Sabrina Schwertner, executive director of the Hitchcock Industrial Development Corp. “There are things that have to be done.”
Commissioner Monica Cantrell Tuesday asked Rathburn if he could accelerate his proposed five-month timeline for examining the city’s affairs.
“I look at the city like a multimillion-dollar business,” Cook said. “With a business of that size, you need someone to come in and run it. We don’t have that right now.”
Rathburn told commissioners he could prioritize the different aspects of the city review by order of importance to help make deadlines with FEMA, in addition to others.
The financial aspect of the review is most important considering the pending FEMA deadline and the need to keep within the approved budget, Cantrell said.
Once the city is steered out of its most immediate Harvey-related woes, commissioners should also consider developing a strategic plan to guide it forward, Rathburn said.
Commissioners unanimously approved allowing Stricklind to negotiate with Rathburn, but financial details weren’t immediately available because there wasn’t a final contract, Stricklind said.
“We have been faced with a lot of immediate challenges in the post-Harvey recovery, but we are striving to build a more resilient Hitchcock for the future of our community,” Schwertner said.
Rathburn said he founded his consulting firm, Rathburn Planning & Consulting, in 2012. His firm developed facility and master plans for La Marque and other entities between 2012 and 2014.
Rathburn was hired by Galveston County in July 2015 at an annual salary of $130,000, according to the county.
Before starting at the county, Rathburn was the executive director of the Galveston County Economic Alliance for about a year. He was the president of Texas A&M University at Texarkana from July 2008 to August 2013 before resigning with little explanation, according to the Texarkana Gazette.
Rathburn was previously president of Savannah Technical College from 2000 to 2008. A Georgia Office of the Inspector General found Rathburn had abused the position by asking the auto department head to purchase parts for his personal vehicle and failing to reimburse him in a timely manner.
The report also found he used state money to cover the initial cost of a catering event for a board member. He resigned several months after the report was completed.
Rathburn was the president of Galveston College from 1995 to 2000.