Jim Tolbert is one of the more interesting people to be elected to the El Paso City Council.
A former Episcopal priest who left the priesthood but not the church, he entered public office for the first time last week when he was sworn in as the new District 2 city representative. But he’d already earned a reputation as a guy you don’t want to mess with.
The ethics complaints he lodged against former District 2 city Rep. Larry Romero and the city manager, Tommy Gonzalez, were unprecedented and have had a significant impact on city government. Romero defeated Tolbert for the District 2 seat in the 2013 city elections.
Romero resigned for health reasons and signed off on three serious ethics violations as his last official act during his holdover period in office. Found to have bent rules but not broken any, Gonzalez had serious questions to answer and still faces an ethics hearing June 1.
Tolbert, a sharp critic of city government before the May 7 election in which he clobbered seven opponents and avoided a runoff, said he thinks he can work with his fellow council members.
But then laughed, as if he wasn’t quite sure.
He calls himself “a middle of the road guy,” but in 2013, he described the incoming City Council as “reactionary and bourgeoisie.”
Yet Tolbert, 63, comes across as a soft-spoken and mild-mannered man. He lives on Frankfort Avenue in the house where he grew up, surrounded by family heirlooms and cats.
The day before he took office, he sat down with El Paso Inc. and talked about what he’d like to change, Uber, urban sprawl, the environment and the blog he wants to keep alive.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.
Q: You won an eight-person race with 60 percent of the vote. What do you attribute it to?
I think one, there was name recognition. Two, there was the issue of the ethics complaint. I didn’t want to use that as an issue because people might say I was a sore loser. But as I was walking around, people would come out of their house and shake my hand and say, “Thank you, thank you for doing that.”
The other thing was I walked in every precinct. I had volunteers and canvassers who walked. We hit every door of potential voters, I think, three times.
Q: Is it safe to say you hope and expect to be a candidate next year, without making it an official announcement?
Yep, I plan to run next year.
Q: Describe yourself politically.
Politically, I think I’m kind of a middle of the road guy. I like to consider all the issues. I’m a registered Democrat. If you want to the play the game in El Paso you have to be a Democrat, but there have been Republicans I’ve voted for.
Q: Back in 2013, after losing the District 2 election to Larry Romero, you were pretty tough on the incoming City Council, writing that it would be “one of the most reactionary and bourgeoisie governments in a long time.” That was then, what do you think of this City Council now?
I think they’re a group of people I can work with. But in terms of environmental policy, this council hasn’t been very friendly to efforts for the environment and open space. When I talk about “reactionary,” that’s what I mean. Rather than doing some progressive things, they seem to have slid backwards.
I’ve also been concerned about some of the infighting – the palace intrigue. I think it’s important for us to get beyond that.
Q: Your ethics complaints against the man you have succeeded in office, Larry Romero, and the city manager, Tommy Gonzalez, have had significant results. Romero resigned and admitted to three ethics violations, and there have been some close calls for Gonzalez. Is there something that the investigations have turned up that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves?
I don’t know what else is there. Sometimes I think we’re just looking at just the tip of the iceberg, but I don’t know that as a fact.
Q: Had you ever done anything like that before?
Q: Is anything else out there that you think needs to be looked into?
I think there needs to be an audit done of the legal department regarding open records requests. I think there have been things going on there that just aren’t kosher.
I’ve made open records requests a number of times and you get down the 10th day by which they have to respond, and they ask you to clarify this for me and that pushes it out. I’ve made open records requests to the county and had them turn them around in a day or two.
There just seems to be, again, an attempt not to be transparent, and we need to get that fixed.
Q: Did you have questions about the street paving projects in District 2 before the early questions arose?
I started hearing things. People started talking, and I saw the list of approved streets and wondered why the changes were made and the fact that he (Romero) paved Polk in front of his old house just before selling it. Things like that made me start wondering what the heck is going on.
Q: What are your priorities for the district going into office?
The biggest thing is I want to start opening up the lines of communication with constituents in District 2. I want to make sure we have meetings that are not centered in one place, and that we start meeting with people all around. I want people to know we’re accessible and available. I want them to have my cell phone number, for example, for them to be able to call me and talk to me.
There are other issues out there. We have the resolution of the Chelsea Street Pool, which is going to be the Radford Street Pool. Chelsea pool has a lot of structural damage. It’s one of the very old ones. So the city purchased a new property. I understand it’s in the design and engineering phase. We want to make sure that moves along.
We have the senior center, the Friendly Community Center, and there are some issues around that we need to have resolved pretty soon.
Q: How would you like to change City Council?
We need to start moving on quality of life issues. I think the city missed a great opportunity by not doing a historical survey Downtown. Fortunately, the county picked that up. I think it’s very important for us to work with our heritage community, as well as our environmental community, to see what we can do to bring in more heritage and eco-tourism.
Q: Uber is the hottest issue in town right now. Will you join Reps. Cortney Niland, Peter Svarzbein and maybe Claudia Ordaz in saying the city should keep Uber whatever it takes?
I haven’t totally made up my mind. I can tell you I think Uber’s a super idea. It’s very popular with the millennials. I’ve been seeing emails today from people who are very much in favor of Uber.
I guess the biggest question has to do with safety. How do they make sure the drivers aren’t going to do something untoward?
What I want to see as a final product is one that’s going to keep Uber operating in El Paso. I don’t want to lose Uber.
Q: Should transportation network companies, or TNCs, be dealt with in one ordinance and vehicles for hire in another?
That’s what the city of Bryant, Texas, has done, and it’s what Rep. Niland wants.
I think she’s right.
Q: Former District 2 city Rep. Susie Byrd was very much behind smart growth, against sprawl and instrumental in pushing through policies and development options along those lines. Does it seem to you that smart growth is still a priority and that “sprawl” is still a dirty word at City Hall?
Well, it’s not a dirty word at City Hall now. We’ve been sprawling quite a bit. I do think the city needs more smart-like. I don’t want to see Plan El Paso just put on the shelf. I want to see it utilized and for us to use it as a good blue print.
In terms of sprawl, there’s nothing you can do if somebody owns private property out there and wants to start building on it. But the last I heard, the impact fees were like 75 percent that the developers pay – a compromise that Mayor John Cook came up with.
Now, I really think that means Central El Paso is subsidizing the development in areas east and northwest of town. As a consequence, we don’t get our streets and sidewalks taken care of.
Q: You write an interesting blog with great graphics and information, El Paso Naturally. Do you plan to continue writing it while you’re in office?
El Paso Naturally will continue. Whether I’ll be the main author or not is something else to find out. I’ve been in communication with some folks who might want to do some of the writing. We’re going to keep it alive.
Q: What do you think the No. 1 environmental issue is in El Paso?
The scarcity of water. We have to look at the fact that there’s a finite amount of water, especially in this county. We could start importing water, but that’s going to be very expensive.
Certainly, doing more with our desalination plant is an expensive proposition, too. Water is an expensive proposition, and it’s the big issue. Then, there’s the new water reuse plant that’s coming on line pretty soon. It’s a tremendous project.
Q: Are there any other environmental causes you plan to bring to the table?
Sure, continue the recreational opportunities. More trailheads. See if we can buy any more chunks of the mountain and preserve them.
I think one of the biggest environmental disasters in this city is the Cemex quarry operation just up the street on Alabama. They’re just eating up the mountain. Grupo Mexico has bought it.
Again, you’re looking at private property in the state of Texas, and if these guys want to tear the hell out of the mountain, well, they can do it. But I’m hoping we might find a way to buy them out and turn it over to the state park and stop the process once and for all.
Q: Tell us about yourself, where you were born, raised, educated?
I was born and raised right here in El Paso. I graduated from Austin High School, went to Texas Tech University. From there, I taught high school history and English in Lubbock for a few years.
I’d always wanted to go to seminary, so I went there in 1980 in Austin and graduated from the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest. Then, I served churches in Tampa, Phoenix and then in Washington State near Seattle.
Q: You’re a former Episcopal priest. When and why did you enter the priesthood?
I felt a calling. I was very active in the church and I enjoyed every level of it. I felt like that was the thing I wanted to do and I’d always had an interest in theology and philosophy.
Q: Why did you leave?
There were a number of things over the years that I realized I didn’t like about parish life and that ministry. It was time for me to transition. I began in 1995 and went fully into secular in 1998 after 15 years in the priesthood.