Editor’s note: Our regularly scheduled Week in Review will not be appearing today in order to make room for this late-breaking news item. Week In Review will return next Friday.
Yesterday a city council agenda item appeared online for the city council meeting scheduled for next Tuesday. The item, number 23 states; “Discussion and action on the Employment Agreement between the City of El Paso and the City Manager.” The item was added to the city council’s agenda by city representatives Brian Kennedy and Joe Molinar. Although the item is not specific about what the possible action may be – for or against Tommy Gonzalez – there is speculation that Gonzalez’ may be terminated by the city.
Long-time critic of Gonzalez, Max Grossman, sent out an email yesterday shortly after the agenda item was posted suggesting that the agenda item “is obviously an opportunity for our City Council to terminate” Gonzalez. Grossman added that “it will cost $1,000,000 to sever his contract, but given the immense financial cost his actions during his eight years and a half in office, that is a great bargain.”
El Paso taxpayers owe about $3 Billion in public debt according to our 2021 analysis. In 2021, El Paso had issued over half-a-billion dollars in non-voter approved certificates of obligation. Much of the blame on the high public debt and the resulting high taxes has been blamed on Tommy Gonzalez, although Gonzalez implements city council directives and the council makes policy under the city charter.
About the cost to oust Gonzalez, Grossman was referring to our 2021 report analyzing the city manager’s employment contract and what it would cost the city’s taxpayers to change city managers. According to our analysis of Gonzalez’ contract, should he be fired by the city or should Gonzalez resign his position, the city’s taxpayers would be obligated to pay Gonzalez close to $1 million as part of his contract.
There is, however, a caveat in Gonzalez’ contract that would allow the city council to remove him that would be less expensive for El Paso’s taxpayers.
Did Tommy Gonzalez Violate His Contract?
The contract between Tommy Gonzalez and the City includes a “just cause” clause in it. The 2018 version of the contract includes the stipulation (Section: VI, subsection 6.1:(1)(2)a-g) that Gonzalez can be terminated for “good cause.” The contact defines “good cause” as:
- Any willful, knowing, grossly negligent, or negligent breach, or habitual neglect of any provision of this Agreement, or any willful, knowing, grossly negligent, or negligent breach, disregard or habitual neglect of any duty or obligation required to be performed by Manager under this Agreement or under the City Charter and ordinances of the City and/or the laws of the United States or the State of Texas;
- Any misconduct of the Manager involving an act of moral turpitude, whether or not related to Manager’s official duties hereunder,
- Conviction of a felony involving moral turpitude;
- Any willful, knowing, grossly negligent, or negligent misapplication or misuse, direct or indirect, by Manager of public or other funds or other property, real, personal, or mixed, owned by or entrusted to the City, any agency or corporation thereof, or the Manager in his official capacity;
- Disability, not otherwise protected by law, when in the opinion of a qualified physician reasonably agreed to by the City and the Manager, the Manager is unable to perform his duties hereunder due to disability after a period of twelve (12) weeks beyond any granted and/or accrued sick leave properly credited to Manager’s account;
- Knowingly falsifying records or documents related to the City’s activities; or
- The illegal use of drugs, hallucinogens or other substances regulated by state law, or being under the influence of such substances while on duty.
El Paso News spoke to an individual close to the issue who agreed to speak to us for background purposes only because they are not authorized to speak to the media about this issue. The individual pointed us to the “good cause” provision in Gonzalez’ contract when we asked about the agenda item.
It is not known what, if any “good cause” provision Gonzalez may have violated. Although the removal of Tommy Gonzalez has been a topic of discussion among several city officials in recent months, the cost of almost a million dollars makes the likelihood of the city council choosing to make a change in the city manager’s office politically untenable. However, the removal Gonzalez or any other punitive action because of a violation of his contract makes the city council’s action a necessity.
Gonzalez has received good performance evaluations from city council, except for 2016 when he asked city council not to perform an evaluation of him that year.
Performance Evaluation And Letters of Admonition
Gonzalez’ performance evaluation by city council in 2021 showed an overall rating of 3.81. The rating is “exceeds expectations,” according to the evaluation’s explanation. Gonzalez’ lowest average rating was 3.56 in two categories. The first was “set the standard for a safe and secure city,” and the second was for “promote transparent and consistent communication amongst all members of the community.”
However, in 2016, Gonzalez was censured by the city’s Ethics Commission on two actions he took.
The El Paso Ethics Commission issued two letters of admonition to Tommy Gonzalez after finding that Gonzalez violated city ordinance by “recklessly disregarding an applicable policy or procedure by authorizing the installation of speed humps on Stanton Street” and for “recklessly” authorizing the resurfacing of an alley.
Because of the two letters of admonition, Gonzalez requested that the city council forgo his 2016 performance evaluation.
The Next Steps
The city council’s agenda item calls for “discussion and action” which suggests that the city council can choose to take an immediate action on Gonzalez’ contract on Tuesday. However because the issue involves personnel matters it is unlikely that much discussion about the item will be held in public. Unless Gonzalez objects, the discussion of any violations by Gonzalez or what changes to the contract may happen would be held in executive session away from the public.
A previous executive session meeting that is related to this agenda item was held on August 23, 2022. In the session, city council members met in executive session to consult “with lawyer regarding City Manager and City Attorney employment agreements.” It is not known what discussions were held at that time. It should be noted that the previous executive session did not include newly seated city representatives Chris Canales, Art Fierro or Brian Kennedy.
We asked former city representative Claudia Rodriguez about Tuesday’s agenda item. Rodriguez is prohibited from talking about executive session items and could not provide any more detail to use about that meeting.
However Rodriguez said via email that “I find it extremely disrespectful of newly elected Rep Kennedy and also Rep Molinar to be placing such a hostile, controversial, divisive, and irresponsible item on the agenda with the end goal of terminating the city managers contract.” Rodriguez added that “It is obvious that both of these two men are a part of Leeser’s gentleman’s club and are out to do the dirty work of power-hungry has-beens, out of town transplants and the real oligarchs of El Paso that want nothing more than for El Paso to fail.”
She continued, “Both Kennedy and Molinar have personal vendettas against our city manager and they have aligned themselves with a group of individuals that don’t want to see a Hispanic man succeed in a community that’s predominantly Hispanic. Shame on them.”
“Last year I led the charge to negotiate a really bad contract that had been originally executed under Oscar Leeser. Ultimately, I capped the City Managers salary in an unprecedented deal. It’s obvious this is retaliation that if successful it will cost the city of El Paso over 2 million dollars. I am disgusted by their negligence.”
El Paso News contacted Brian Kennedy for a comment about the agenda item. In a telephone conversation Kennedy told us that he was unable “to discuss personnel matters” with us.
The city council meeting where this item will be discussed is scheduled for Tuesday, February 28. It is scheduled to start at 9:00 am. El Paso News will monitor the meeting and bring you important updates as they happen.