At a time when El Paso is getting ready to hire its second city manager and wanting to look sharp in the process, things have gotten messy.
“I’ve been here nine years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” West Side city Rep. Ann Lilly said Friday. “It’s been a very clumsy situation, and it didn’t need to be.”
While waiting to deliver a baby, East Side city Rep. Michiel Noe, an obstetrician, said he is “more than a little concerned” about the process the city has followed.
At issue they say is the legality of the selection of El Paso’s next city manager and the authorization of final contract negotiations last week without any formal action by City Council.
During a news conference Monday, Mayor Oscar Leeser announced that Tomas “Tommy” Gonzalez, 47, the former Irving city manager, was the El Paso City Council’s top choice, although there had been no official vote. The consensus for Gonzalez, however, was unanimous.
Gonzalez’s base pay would be $238,960 a year, the same as that of Joyce Wilson, El Paso’s first city manager who has served for 10 years.
In an interview with El Paso Inc., Gonzalez said he is ready to take the job.
“My intention is to accept the position,” he said by phone from his home in Irving, a community of 100,000 northeast of Dallas.
“I think El Paso is a great opportunity for a city manager,” he said. “I truly feel blessed and lucky that God prepared me for this opportunity.”
Leeser also announced that the council may name a current deputy city manager, Sean McGlynn, as interim city manager effective Wednesday, abruptly ending Wilson’s tenure.
She will continue to serve the city in a consulting capacity and will be paid through the end of her contract Sept. 30.
Noe said the announcement concerning Gonzalez made him uneasy.
“I am concerned and I have been concerned about it for a while,” Noe said. “It’s not just me. We have been asking throughout this process if this is legal, if we we’re doing this right because it doesn’t seem by the book.”
City Attorney Sylvia Borunda Firth offered her assurances at last week’s press conference that the process the city is following is legal and complies with the City Charter.
Noe said Firth may well be right, but it doesn’t feel right because of the lack of formal action by the City Council to select Gonzalez, authorize the search firm, Affion Public, to negotiate his contract and nominate McGlynn as interim city manager.
“In ethics training, one of the first things they teach you is that if you start getting a gut feeling that something’s not right, you stop and don’t go any further,” Noe said.
He said he asked the city clerk’s office to put an item on this Tuesday’s agenda to obtain a formal written opinion from Firth or an outside law firm, but was asked to take it back and not post it for action.
“I did; I took it off, and it’s not the first time I’ve been asked,” Noe said. “But all night long it’s been bugging me, so this morning, I decided I’m going to put it back on because I want assurances that what we’re doing is right and I want it in writing.”
That item is not on Tuesday’s council agenda, but there will be a special City Council meeting at 5 p.m. Monday. The only item listed for that meeting calls for “discussion and action concerning the quality of legal advice and performance of city attorney.”
The first action item on Tuesday’s agenda indicates that Gonzalez has agreed to the contract and calls for council action authorizing Leeser to sign the contract appointing him city manager effective June 23.
“Sylvia Firth may be completely right,” Noe said. “But at this point I’m not comfortable especially with the Sean McGlynn thing.
“I’m not voting; I’m out of it. I’m just going to back out of the whole thing until I get a written statement from the attorney saying we’re OK, and not just this executive session ‘don’t worry about it’ thing.”
Reached while out of town Friday afternoon, Leeser didn’t seem bothered by Noe’s questions or Lily’s comments.
“You know what? I think it’s important that people have the right to ask questions or to have questions,” the mayor said. “But I’m very confident in the city attorney for the guidance that she has given us.”
The action items on Tuesday’s City Council agenda should resolve any questions and outstanding issues, he said.
Leeser confirmed that naming McGlynn as interim city manager was his idea, but said it’s only a proposal – one that council members can vote down on Tuesday if they choose.
“What we have is a recommendation. He has not been appointed to anything,” Leeser said.
Leeser cited the way Fort Worth is hiring its new city manager and said El Paso is using the same process.
Fort Worth’s city spokesman Bill Begly said the current city manager announced his resignation months ago – as did Wilson – and that Fort Worth initiated a search that ended last week with the city council reaching a consensus on the top finalist in executive session.
Then, Begley said, without formal action, the company that conducted the national search and vetted the applicants was authorized to negotiate a contract with the lone finalist.
As in Gonzalez’s case, that contract will be before the Fort Worth City Council for approval Tuesday.
The question, however, is what exactly the charters of the two cities say about replacing a city manager.
Wilson made the short list for the Fort Worth job in February, but the council there rejected all of the finalists and restarted the search.
City Rep. Lilly said she thinks there should have been items on last week’s agenda to let the council vote on the selection of Gonzalez from the field of four finalists for the job and to authorize Affion to open contract negotiations.
That, she said, is what the City Charter calls for and the way Wilson was hired.
“All of a sudden, we have this interim thing going on, and it’s gotten very confusing,” Lilly said. “Joyce, I thought, was going to stay until the new city manager came and work with that person to help with the transition and with budget hearings.
“The first I knew of her leaving was just before we went into that press conference Monday. I just think this is unnecessarily confusing.”
Wilson, when reached by phone and asked if the hiring process has been handled properly, took a long time to answer.
“It’s hard for me to comment because I want to be sure I’m really careful that the new manager comes in with a minimum amount of chaos and conflict,” she said. “I think one of the things that happened is that he was available to come in far more quickly than we anticipated.
“He’s coming right away, and will be on the ground for a few days next week and will be in every week informally trying to get oriented and involved in the budget. Then, he’ll assume everything formally in June.”
Wilson said the order of things makes sense “on the surface.”
“I’m just not sure that legally it was handled appropriately,” she said. “My contract is in force through September and I’m not sure the council can appoint an interim without removing the current city manager.”
Other than that, she said, “I’m fine, I’m happy. I’m going to stay in El Paso, and I actually have some opportunities here in the private sector.”
Laughing, she added, “So, I won’t have to tell anyone how much money I’m making,”
Of Gonzalez, she said, “I know him, and I think he is really talented and competent. The thing I feel really good about is that through the process, the players really reinforced the city manager form of government and insisted on having a seasoned city manager take over.
“I know the business community made it pretty clear about not wanting a return to a strong mayor.”
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.