There is considerable debate today about city manager Tommy Gonzalez, the city’s current city manager form of government and how the city moved away from a strong-mayor form of government, not to mention the mayor’s veto yesterday. The city has had two city managers, Joyce Wilson and Tommy Gonzalez. Both have been controversial. Wilson, the city’s first city manager in 2004,  controversially allowed the MountainStar Sports Group (MSSG) to bring the Chihuahuas Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres (Pacific Coast AAA club) to El Paso by first demolishing its long-standing city hall building in 2013 to build, with taxpayer funds, the Southwest University Ballpark in downtown El Paso. MSSG is owned by Woody Hunt and his family, along with Paul Foster and his wife, Alejandra de la Vega.
The city’s second city manager is Tommy Gonzalez. He was appointed in 2014, after Wilson’s departure. Gonzalez was in the news in recent days after it was reported that he was a finalist for Frisco Texas’ new city manager. On May 16, 2022, city council voted five to three to extend Gonzalez’ contract until June 24, 2029, in response to the news that Gonzalez’ was in the running for the Frisco job. Representatives Peter Svarzbein, Cassandra Hernandez, Isabel Salcido, Henry Rivera and Cissy Lizarraga voted in favor of the five-year contract extension. Voting against the extension were Alexsandra Annello, Joe Molinar and Claudia Rodriguez. 
As previously reported by El Paso Politics, Gonzalez’ contract calls for the city to pay him almost one million dollars should he resign, or his contract is not renewed. The contract extension keeps the running tab on the one million payout for Gonzalez when he leaves the city. The controversy over El Paso’s two city managers has led readers to ask how did El Paso give up its strong-mayor form of government? It all comes down to the city’s charter. The city charter is the “constitution” for the City of El Paso.
The 2004 City Charter Vote
In 2004, El Paso voters voted to move El Paso away from its strong-mayor form of government to a city manager-council style of government.  Prior to the 2004 vote, El Paso’s mayor had substantial control over the city’s operations. Under the city manager form of government, the city manager, an unelected position appointed by the city council, implements council’s policy but controls the city’s operations.
City voters approved the city charter amendment in February 2004.  In the February 7, 2004, city election, proposition #4 passed by 1,839 votes from 21,785 votes cast that date for the change in government. Wilson was hired in August of that year, as the city’s first city manager. 
City’s Charter Votes
El Paso’s city charter governs the city’s governmental functions. There have been several charter elections making changes to the city’s charter since the 1900’s. On December 10, 1921, El Paso voters voted on three charter amendments. The first two propositions provided the city with the power to expand its footprint. The first one allowed the city to expand and the second proposition gave the city council the right to expand the city without having to get approval from the state government. The third measure authorized the city to issue bonds to fund infrastructure by issuing public bonds. 
Several charter amendment elections were held between 1929 and 1952. None of them addressed the need for a city manager form of government. Most of the proposed amendments dealt with governing issues and the issuance of bonds and taxes. The 1941 charter amendment empowered voters with the recall provision. According to a sample 1941 ballot, among the provisions included a measure for the recall of any city elected official by a petition of 25% of the registered voters at the time. Another charter amendment election in 1943 added a pension plan paid for by taxes collected by the City of El Paso for all city employees, except police and firemen.
The 1954 city charter amendment was the first-time voters were asked about moving away from the strong-mayor form of government towards a city manager.  Voters rejected the city manager form of government.
El Paso voters also rejected increasing the mayor and city council members’ salaries in the January 15, 1977, charter elections. However, in a low-voter turnout where only 17,995 voters voted, the voters increased the size of city council from four to six members, limited the mayor and city representatives to four consecutive two-year terms and changed voting for city representatives to single-members districts instead of from citywide that previous city representatives were elected from.  Choosing city representatives from a citywide pool of candidates empowered the wealthier sections of the city to make public policy. The next attempt to move towards a city manager form of government came in 1980.
In a 1980 column in the El Paso Herald Post, then mayor Tom Westfall argued for a city manager form of government for El Paso. Westfall wrote that the city needed a city manager “for continuity of policies when elected officials change.” Westfall, however added that a charter amendment for the 1981 elections will not happen because “a city manager would decrease the political power of elected officials.” Westfall concluded that “it is rare when an elected official wants to give up any clout that he has struggled so long to obtain.” 
The next time that a charter amendment election to move El Paso away from the strong-mayor form of government to a city manager form of government came on February 7, 2004. It is this voter approved charter amendment that brought Joyce Wilson and Tommy Gonzalez to El Paso.
Oscar Leeser Vetos Gonzalez Contract
Late yesterday, according to news reports, Oscar Leeser vetoed city council’s extension of Gonzalez’s new contract. To override the mayor’s veto, one of the three city representatives that voted against Gonzalez’ contract would have to change their vote. Of the three, Alexsandra Annello, Joe Molinar, or Claudia Rodriguez, only Rodriguez may change her vote. Art Fierro, who lost his seat to Claudia Ordaz in the recent elections for state representative, is rumored to be wanting to challenge Rodriguez, giving her a pause in changing her vote for Gonzalez.
Shortly after El Paso city council extended his contract, Tommy Gonzalez withdrew his application for the Frisco city manager position, according to Dana Baird, the Frisco director of communications and media relations.  Should Leeser’s veto stand, Gonzalez’ current contract will end in 2024, although the contract can automatically be renewed for two two-year terms.
The 2022 City Charter Amendment Election
On January 18, 2022, city council adopted a resolution establishing an ad-hoc committee to make recommendations to place charter amendment items for the November 2022 elections. Next month is the deadline for finalizing the charter amendment items for the upcoming elections. Although a final list has not been made public, one item, a proposal to remove the veto power from the mayor and give him a city council vote has been publicly discussed.
In late 2021, Joe Molinar announced that he wanted a city charter amendment election to allow voters to decide whether to return to the strong-mayor form of government or remain with a city manager. Leeser, who vetoed the latest contract extension, ran on a platform on making changes to the powers of the city manager. The ad-hoc committee studying items to be added to the November charter amendments election have not publicly discussed doing away with the city manager form of government for El Paso.
With the veto, and his withdrawal of his application for the Frisco job, Gonzalez now faces the prospect of convincing city council to override the mayor’s veto.
- Gustavo Reveles Acosta, “City leaders respect, though at times disagree with Wilson,” El Paso Times, October 13, 2008, 2A.
- David Gonzalez, “Tommy Gonzalez says he’s staying after El Paso City Council votes to extend city manager’s contract through 2029,” KVIA, May 16, 2022.
- Tammy Fonce-Olivas, “Council rethinks City Charter,” El Paso Times, December 5, 2006, 1-B.
- Editorial, “Matter of Trust,” El Paso Times, August 4, 2005, 5B.
- “Matter of Trust,” 5B.
- Sample ballot printed in the El Paso Times on December 20, 1921, 1.
- “City Manager Gets Broad Power Under Charter,” El Paso Herald Post, January 7, 1954, 7.
- “Voters seek closer ties without salary increase,” El Paso Herald Post, January 17, 1977, 1.
- Tom Westfall, Mayor’s Corner, “City Manager,” El Paso Herald Post, November 20, 1980, B-3.
- Anna Capian, “Frisco city manager finalist withdraws application,” The Dallas Morning News, May 17, 2022, https://www.dallasnews.com/news/2022/05/17/frisco-city-manager-finalist-withdraws-application/
There is a fundamental problem with the current charter organization and it is that it reduces the power of the mayor to that of a figurehead. A simple solution that I have proposed in other blogs and in El Paso Inc, is to take a clue from private sector organizations and separate line from staff powers, giving back to the mayor some portfolio to move his agenda as our elected CEO.
In this proposal, the city manger function would be downgraded to that of a chief operating officer (COO) in charge of public safety, parks, streets, sanitation and the like. The mayor would assume the functions of finance (not purchasing or IT), legal, planning and economic development that must be recaptured form Borderplex. In this way, the mayor has some staff functions to move his/her agenda and oversee independent financial reporting.
Currently, too much power is vested in the CM that really should be an operating function, IMO.
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