Joyce Wilson

El Paso City Manager Joyce Wilson.

In early 2004, El Paso became the biggest U.S. city to switch to a city manager form of government. A few months later, City Council hired Joyce Wilson to fill that position.

The idea behind the change that voters approved was to modernize city government, cut back the power of the mayor and to bring in professional management that would provide consistency and continuity.

Former El Paso Mayor Joe Wardy, who pushed for the city manager election that took away his and future mayor's executive powers, still thinks it was the best thing for El Paso.

"I'm a big fan of Joyce Wilson," Wardy said. "She's bright. She has a really good pulse on the city and the most important thing for citizens to know is she's strong on accountability.

"The city has been very fortunate she's chosen to make this her home. We couldn't have done better."

Wilson holds a bachelor's degree in business administration and economics from Virginia Commonwealth University, and a master's in public administration from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Before El Paso, she had served as administrator of Yuma, Ariz.; assistant city manager of Richmond, Va.; and deputy county manager of Arlington County, Va.

She celebrates her 59th birthday and her seventh anniversary as El Paso's first city manager this Thursday, Sept. 1. She is divorced and has a daughter and two grandchildren living in Atlanta.

Wilson's $227,500 salary will go up by 5 percent to $238,875 after the start of the new fiscal year, also on Thursday. The increase is set out in her contract and based on her latest job performance review.

Although some have called for a return to the days when the mayor called the shots at City Hall, Wilson's tenure has been surprisingly smooth for a city as politically stormy as El Paso.

If El Paso likes Wilson, the feeling is mutual. She thinks it's been a good marriage, made better by the fact voters extended the terms of the mayor and eight city representatives from two years to four at the same time they approved a city manager.

"I think this has been a really exciting time in El Paso's history," she said. "The city has enjoyed a great amount of stability in its political leadership. It's seen a tremendous amount of progress.

"People feel like things are happening. They feel that they're getting a lot more service than they used to. I feel really proud to have been a part of this. I'm really happy that I've been here for seven years, because I remember when I first got here, people didn't think I was going to make it."

A top administrator at City Hall who asked not to be named describes Wilson as "brilliant," and credits her with transforming city government.

"She has a vision of where she's going and she's got backbone," he said.

Wilson's administration has reduced the number of city employees while significantly expanding services, overhauled the city's mass transit system, revamped the way new neighborhoods are built and pushed Downtown redevelopment.

Wilson says there's still plenty she wants to do. In an interview with El Paso Inc., she talks about taxes, reducing bureaucracy, and the odds of a new arena and a new City Hall.

Q: Your seventh anniversary as El Paso's first city manager is this Thursday, Sept. 1. What's the average tenure for somebody in your position among the nation's top 30 cities?

Surprisingly, city managers are relatively stable. I think the average stint is five years. Some managers have very long tenures. I'd say five to 10 years is not unusual.

Q: You've been responsible for a lot of the changes. How does the city's operation today compare to 2005?

Since 2005, we're light-years away in terms of being a very different organization. Sometimes, I forget how much change we've actually made, because there's still a lot that I really would like to do before my time is up.

We had a second round of City Charter amendments and did a lot of clean up. And we've done a lot of process reform, reorganization, streamlining procedures and streamlining the bureaucracy.

The whole land use reform was huge. Sun Metro was our little miracle. We saved Sun Metro, which is something I'm really proud of. So there's been a tremendous amount of change.

Q: Is El Paso now comfortable having a city manager as opposed to the strong mayor form of government it had for so many years?

I think the thing that really has hit home with me is that the city manager form of government wasn't an issue in this last election. You can tell people have become accustomed to the changes. They seem to like them. It has provided some stability and continuity.

All the candidates who were running this year said they really supported a city manager form of government. They think it's working really well. The mayor and council are able to focus now on the big policy things. So to me, that means something good has happened. It's getting institutionalized now.

Q: You said there's still a lot you would like to do. Like what?

Well, this still is a very big bureaucracy. It still takes a lot of time and effort to get things done, to get from point A to B to C. I need to just get my arms around how to really make this organization flexible so you can make decisions and make things happen without it taking forever.

It's like no one really owns the problem. This department knows the problem, but that department's got a piece of it, and Human Resources has got a piece of it, or Finance. It's kind of easy for something to wallow around. I really want to fix that, so that we can be flexible and adaptable and move quickly, be more innovative.

The technology pieces are really important to me. We're making a lot of investments in technology right now. I want to see those tools take shape and change the way we're doing business.

We want the public to be able to do a lot more online and not have to come down here to City Hall. Using technology and social media is important. So there are a few things I really do want to get done.

Q: Is there anything really big, such as a new City Hall and giving up this land? There's been talk about an arena site somewhere around here. At the same time, you'd be looking at a big expense for a new City Hall. What about that?

I do believe that the city should leverage its land assets to really affect things that are going to change the trajectory for Downtown.

If this site actually makes sense for a new arena, then I think we should make it available and vacate it.

Do we have to go out and build a new City Hall? I don't think so. I think what we do is work with the private sector, ask them to build a new City Hall, and we'll be a tenant. Lease a facility, and let the private sector come to the table and actually build it.

This City Hall building has a lot of needs. If we're going to stay here, we have to make some strategic decisions about the investments we need to make to modernize it.

Q: What are your thoughts about an arena in the foreseeable future?

I think it can happen within the next five to 10 years. I think there are several key projects right now that are gurgling out there. I think all of them, in and of themselves, are what we call "impact projects" or game-changer projects. To the extent that we can use our land holdings to help facilitate that makes it a lot easier.

In some ways, it's wise for the city to have a lot of land holdings Downtown because now things are starting to happen, and you don't have to worry about taking land from somebody and fighting those fights.

Q: You asked for about a half-cent increase in the tax rate and City Council approved it to raise about $500,000 in additional taxes. Why does the city need that?

I think part of it is that over the last several years we have not grown the budget at all. I mean, we've been really flat tax-wise, revenue-wise and expenditure-wise. We did that at the expense of cutting some things. Park maintenance took a pretty big hit. And street maintenance. This year, we have a new fire station that is opening. We've had a lot of pressure to add staffing to the Police Department.

The council basically said we need to restore some of the cuts in infrastructure, particularly in the parks maintenance and land management. With the freeze, the drought and the lack of preventive maintenance, the parks and athletic fields took a real beating. We need to do quite a bit to get those back to a standard. So, they were very targeted. That half a penny is going towards parks maintenance, streets maintenance, the library book fund, building a replacement fund for circulation purposes, and the vehicle replacement fund - primarily for police cars.

Q: In recent years, the biggest increases in city spending have been the result of raises for 2,000 firefighters and police. Will they receive raises in the fiscal year that starts Sept. 1? If so, by what percent and how much do they cost?

You know, in the coming year, they are not going to get any increases - neither police nor firefighters. We have a formula we use to calculate whether or not there's going to be any increases. It really focuses on about five to seven comparable cities. We do the analysis for police, and we determine what the adjustment will be based on that analysis.

Well, this year, it's zero. Most of these other cities are not only not giving raises, they're reducing salaries.

Q: Your administration and the council have been looking at a bond election, but the plans have been delayed. What's the plan now? How much might it be and for what?

They've been talking about a quality of life bond initiative. There's been conversation about doing it in the fall of 2012. Some council members have talked about pushing it to May 2013, because of the mayoral election that year. We're going to be meeting to lay out a process for that and what the priorities are going to be.

A lot of folks are saying maybe we should focus on Downtown, on some signature projects and maybe some minor modernization of other things. I think a lot of it will depend on the discussion in the community.

We'll ask, "What are the things that you want?" We can get a list from that. But, I would say, if we were going to do it, it would be constrained. Maybe $100 or $150 million, and we'd do it over a seven- to 10-year window.

Q: The last quality-of-life bond election was in 2000?

Yes. That took about 10 years.

Q: A big signature possibility might be an arena in the neighborhood of $100 million.

I think the game plan has always been that the city would not be the one to fund that solely. The expectation is that it would be a public-private partnership. Maybe a city, county, private sector blend.

Q: Any idea what kind of a tenant would be there?

I have not been personally involved in these conversations. I know there have been conversations about an anchor tenant or making it a multi-purpose center. Maybe having UTEP have some of their big games there.

Q: Would other venues have to be shut down if an arena is built? The one everyone is talking about is the County Coliseum. Are there others?

If we're going to build an arena, I would recommend we explore whether or not the Abraham Chavez Theatre goes away, and that a performance component is built into the arena instead.

Right now, the Abraham Chavez Theater is a 2,500-seat facility. It needs $10 million to $15 million of investment just to address the basic safety stuff.

We're not going to get any more seats out of it. So the thought was, if we're going to invest in an arena, do we invest in one that has the capacity to be screened off to create a performing arts component to replace the Chavez and net more seats? That would get us a different kind of concert venue that we don't have.

If we're going to invest in a $100 million asset, we need to look at the existing assets and decide if it replaces some of them. We don't just want to add it to the repertoire of assets, many of which are aging and need maintenance. The key is how much do you put into a facility? I mean, if you're going to put $15 million into it and you added a thousand additional seats, that's one thing. But, to put $15 million and not add any seats kind of begs some questions.

Q: What about the four-day work schedule? Is the city keeping it?

As far as I know, we're going to keep that in place for right now. I've still been evaluating with council about whether or not to open City Hall for at least half a day on Fridays. We've done a lot of research and have survey information, and the challenge is the community really likes the 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. schedule Monday through Thursday.

People actually like the earlier and later hours. But some people feel that not being open on Friday is inconvenient. So we're trying to figure out how to remedy that. But for now, it's the status quo.

Q: During the big freeze in February, El Pasoans received conflicting messages from the water utility services, the electric company, and the city itself. Has the city come up with a plan for coordinating messages in an emergency?

Well, I actually think the city's messaging was very straightforward. The issue was that the utilities were in a crisis during that period.

We mobilized the emergency op center solely to be a repository to get information out about what was going on. In general, I think we did pretty well in terms of our communication.

The water utility was probably less involved early on because their crisis didn't happen until the end when they started losing water pressure. We have debriefed, and we've looked at preparedness and how to involve the utilities in that. So I think we've got some systems going forward.

We did use the reverse 911 for the first time during this freeze, and that worked really well. You can sign up. It's a safety alert system. You can get text messages, phone calls, or e-mails - or all three. We really got people to use that system. We were able to push out constant information about whether or not there would be rolling blackouts or whether or not the schools were still closed.

Q: What are your plans for the future?

My goal is to finish my city management career here in El Paso. I have no aspirations to go to another city. After El Paso, I couldn't think of a city that would be as equally challenging and exciting as this position has been.

When I fade off into the city manager sunset, I hope to do something else. Maybe I'll spin off and do something else in the community - non-profit work, teaching or consulting.

Q: Here or back in Virginia?

I want to live here. I like it here. I like the weather, and I have a really nice social and personal life here. I have a great support system and good friends. It's a good place.

E-mail El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at dcrowder@elpasoinc.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.

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