As resounding as it was, Mayor-elect Oscar Leeser’s landslide victory over city Rep. Steve Ortega in the June 15 runoff election wasn’t a big surprise.
Calling City Manager Joyce Wilson the next day and asking her to stay?
Now that was a surprise.
Leeser defeated Ortega with 74 percent of the 44,758 votes cast in the runoff, and doubtless some, if not many, of those voters expected him to encourage Wilson to take the manager job she was offered by Lee County, Fla.
The fact that he called her Sunday and invited her to his home for a heart-to-heart talk that led him to propose that she stay until her contract runs out in September 2014 says a lot about Leeser and the kind of mayor he’ll be.
The city announced that Wilson had turned down the Florida job in a statement quoting the mayor-elect, and not Mayor John Cook or Wilson herself. It was sent to news organizations by the city mid-morning Tuesday, while the outgoing City Council was tied up in the last knock-down, drag-out meeting of its term.
Leeser may not have a college degree, but he didn’t build one of the most successful auto dealerships in the state by making bad decisions or, evidently, being afraid to act.
Wilson has won a suitcase-full of awards for the job she has done in El Paso since 2004, and the city has a budget to balance this summer, a ballpark to build and $473 million in bond projects to get started in the coming year.
A common-sense mayor wouldn’t want to lose a very competent chief executive at such a crucial time, and neither did Leeser.
“I want the public to know that I am staying true to my word that I was not going to rush through things; which is why I feel it is best for city manager to stay through the end of her contract,” Leeser’s statement read.
Businessman Robert Cormell, who finished third in the eight-way mayoral race on May 11, said he respects Leeser’s decision.
“It’s important for El Paso to have a leader,” Cormell said. “He looked at the situation and decided she needs to be here. I believe he saw this is what’s going to be best for El Paso.
“We have to hope that’s the way he continues to govern our city: making decisions that benefit El Paso.”
El Paso Inc. caught up with Leeser to ask him what went into asking Wilson to stay and for his thoughts about the next city manager, as well as the latest baseball deal with the MountainStar Sports Group.
Q: The move you made last week to keep the city manager, Joyce Wilson, on board was very interesting and probably surprised a lot of people who evidently think she should be run out of town.
That’s not the proper thing to do for the city, and we’re going to do what’s right for the city, and for the majority.
Q: What has the reaction been?
I’ve gotten a lot of positive response from that, I really have.
Q: You reached out to her, right?
Yeah, that’s correct I did. I called her and asked to meet with her and I met with her on Sunday and I met again with her on Monday.
Q: What motivated you to do that?
We have the budget and we want to be sure we do the best job we can with the budget. We also have some projects that are not finished. I made a commitment when I ran for office that I would never make a decision rapidly, I would always take my time to reach the right decision.
I think if she had left us we would have been rushed to make the decisions and we want to make sure they’re the right ones, so it’s not costly to our community. If you make the wrong decision about something like that, it can be very expensive and we don’t want to do that.
Q: What was going to happen if Joyce Wilson had left? What would the problems have been?
We have until Sept. 1 to get the budget balanced. It’s a tough budget to balance, and there are some things in there that are going to make it a challenge. I met with the mayor yesterday, and he said Oscar it’s going to be really tough for you to balance that budget and not have a tax rate hike because we have the $3 million (loss) from Western Refinery, and we have the automatic police and fire raises.
Q: Do you know how much those raises will be this year?
You know I don’t, and that’s why it’s important to have somebody who’s been working it and doing it. You know, it was important for El Paso that we keep continuity, and I’ve always said I was never against the city manager form of government for the reason of continuity. And I wanted to keep continuity so if we have ample time to go out and search for the right person who can move the city forward.
So it’s important for us to give the city the luxury of being able to go through the interview process, whether it’s local or national, and make sure that we have the right person for the job.
Q: A lot of cities, Austin and others, have struggled month after month to find the right person for city manager. Here, the push has been to find somebody local but the chances of finding someone who has that education, the skills and the experience is difficult. What do you think?
We’re going to look local. I think it’s important that we look local, but we’re also going to be prepared to look nationally to get the right candidate for the city. We’d love to find someone here that understands our culture and the beauty of our city. That’s important to me.
Q: Do you have any concerns about what happened at Tuesday’s City Council meeting regarding the new agreements the council approved with MountainStar Sports Group to spend $60.8 million on the ballpark in exchange for them doubling their annual lease payment from $200,000 to $400,000 and extending the term to 30 years? Any heartburn there?
Well, I told them that when I get in on Tuesday and the week coming up, I want to look at a pro forma of the loan from day one so I can make a decision based on how it’s going to pay out over a 30-year period. I want to look at that based on what we’re borrowing and what will be the payback and how it will perform based on a pro forma.
I’m open to receive it before I go into office, so I can study it and make sure it’s what we need and what we want.
Q: Are you talking about the paper work that the city’s CFO Carmen Arrieta Candelaria has prepared showing where the money will come from, how it gets paid and what the financial expectations are for the pay off of the bonds?
Exactly. When you go borrow money to buy a house, they give you the 30-year payout – how much goes to principal, how much goes to interest and at the end of the day if you go the full 30 years, how much will you pay back?
Q: Your thoughts on the deal the city made for the extra amenities? It’s a little nebulous about exactly what they are, but did you like having MountainStar come in and throw some extra money in the pot to take care of what they thought was necessary?
I loved it. I thought it was very good for them to be willing to step up and do the thing they felt was right. They wouldn’t have done it, obviously, if they didn’t feel it was the right thing to do, but I was impressed and I’m not going to second guess the council. They did what they thought was best, and I’m not going to second guess them at all.
Q: The mayor said they could delay a decision on the agreement but that he didn’t think it would have been fair to dump it on the next mayor and City Council after the current council had spent months and months on it. Would you agree?
Again, I’m not going to second guess anything they did or said. I think they all were working in the best interests of the city, and I appreciate that.
Q: Rep. Eddie Holguin tried to get a two-week postponement and, failing that, asked if he could put the agreement back on the agenda in two weeks for reconsideration. Is that something you want to do?
You know, Eddie has the right to do that. He did check with the city attorney who told him he could. So, he has the right to do that and if he does that, I’m supportive of what they do. You know, one thing I can tell people is we need to keep moving forward and progress is good. I’ve stated that during the whole campaign that we need always to move forward and make sure we stay with progress.
But then again we want to make sure it’s done in the right way. So, if Eddie has any concerns, I’d like to address them with him and look at them and see his concerns. I’m not going to say no until I look at it and find out what his concerns are.
Q: It would be interesting if it came down to a tie vote on something like the baseball stadium at your second meeting and you had to break the tie to keep the deal the city made, or to go along and reopen the whole issue and reconsider the MountainStar financing proposal.
I’m impressed that they wanted to come up and that they were willing to invest as they have for many, many projects in our community. But, again, we have to see how everything was done. That’s my biggest thing: I want to make sure we all understand how it pays out and how it performs.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.