Alexsandra Annello has represented District 2 for one term on El Paso City Council, with challengers Judy Gutierrez and James Campos looking to oust the incumbent in the Nov. 3 election.
Annello, 36, a native of Boston, defeated incumbent James Tolbert in a 2017 runoff election. Among her first-term accomplishments listed on her website, Annello points to different quality-of-life solutions such as the renovation of Chelsea Pool, the Flat Field Complex at Lower Beaumont, Liz Morayma Gonzalez Park renovation and expansion, a new public park at Hart and Baird, and Memorial Park and Mountain View Park renovations. Prior to taking office, Annello worked in the arts and nonprofit sectors for a decade.
Gutierrez, 56, who retired in December 2019 from the city of El Paso after 24 years of service, served as assistant/chief of staff to the last four District 2 representatives, served under City Managers Joyce Wilson and Tommy Gonzalez. She’s a board member of the El Paso Sheriff’s Advisory Committee and Central Regional Command Police Advisory Committee, and board member and past president of the Sun Up Optimist Club of Canutillo and 5 Points Business Association.
Campos, 65, ran twice unsuccessfully for mayor in Socorro and ran unsuccessfully for the District 1 seat on El Paso City Council in 2003.
In advance of the election, all three were asked questions on a series of topics.
What are the most important issues for you in the District 2 race?
Annello: There are several pressing issues for the District 2 race. Transparency and accountability have been ongoing concerns with District 2 and the city as a whole. When I ran for office in 2017, we had seen a lack of leadership from our previous council members as well as a lack of ethical behavior. Since my time in office, I have made it a priority to correct the wrongs that were done and push for a more transparent process. We now have a street selection process that is done by need and not by the council person preference.
After my former staff member left my office and deleted all of our constituent services records and contacts, I fought for a comprehensive constituent complaint service which will protect the data and the concerns of all residents. This will address issues in a fast and streamlined manner, no matter who is in the office. The residents of District 2 were tired of having City Council representation that did not stand up for them and who simply rubber-stamped projects that ended up costing them in the long run. While in office, I have asked the hard questions that need to be asked and have taken votes that my constituents are proud of.
Infrastructure is another ongoing issue in District 2. I have worked to put the most amount of money into streets in the district since the 2012 bond and created the first designated fund for streets, despite the large need that still exists. Vacant buildings have also been a very big concern of mine and the district. We have seen three vacant buildings burn in the last six months alone and have been working on creating a process to allow the city to take a stronger stance on protecting the residents and structures of District 2.
In addition, speed bumps are another issue we worked to resolve. Previously, the process stated that a certain amount of cars needed to travel a street at an excessive speed. This really limited the residential streets from being able to qualify for speed bumps. I am happy to say that we changed that rule to now state that a certain percentage of cars need to travel at an excessive speed. This change has allowed for many more streets to qualify for the infrastructure needs they require. In FY2020, we added enough dollars in the budget to fulfill all the pending requests.
Campos: 1. Jobs.
2. High paying jobs.
3. Technology jobs.
4. Wasteful spending of our tax dollars.
District 2 has an industrial park next to the airport. Let’s bring jobs!
Gutierrez: First and foremost will be focusing on the actual needs of District 2 and committing 100 percent to work for and with the residents of District 2 who have voiced over and over that they have no voice on council; no follow-through from the office, no return of phone calls, and certainly not seeing their issues taken care of by the incumbent. It is the job I am completely familiar with, having performed it for the last 15 years; working with a team of city staff to take care of constituents’ needs and then following through with them by phone or in person. I have always been hands-on. It’s customer service, it’s community-based representation.
The second priority is to restore civility and professionalism in the District 2 seat. Disagreements are a natural and even expected result in City Council. The incumbent has neither the character nor temperament for this position as evidenced by the countless times she has left the dais or executive session because she either didn’t get her way or she was unsuccessful in convincing her colleagues on her viewpoint. I was witness to this behavior until my retirement in December 2019.
I fully expect to disagree with the mayor and my colleagues on a variety of issues, but that is the job you campaign for and the job will come with highs and very low lows. The dais is not the place to throw tantrums and attack your colleagues. Gaining consensus takes teamwork and unbiased respect for your colleagues regardless of your ideologies.
How do you view the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Annello: I think the city initially responded very well to the COVID-19 pandemic. I believe we acted at just the right time and were able to get data out very quickly and we were all very active in adjusting the data to fit the needs and concerns of the community. As Gov. (Greg) Abbott began reopening the state, I believe our enforcement dropped off. We should, and still need to, be more aggressive to make sure people are following the rules and doing their part to keep the public safe.
As one of the members of the council who pushed for transparency of clusters and any and all statistical data, I believe the city has failed to be as transparent as possible when it has come to this information. I will also continue to be completely transparent about the fact that the interpretation from the city attorney was just that, that the law allows for the release of this information. Many times, we find that council members will not question the information that is presented to them. I have made it a top priority to always ask the questions that need to be asked and do the policy research that is important to get accurate information for my community.
I co-authored the City Council resolution that directed the city manager to cover the following with the CARES Act dollars and receive input from stakeholders and City Council regarding the use of CARES Act funding to support persons with the following: rental assistance, utility assistance support, wage assistance support, grocery assistance support, child care support, small business grant and loan support, testing expansion and access, hiring and training contact tracers at volumes recommended by White House guidelines, and any public health projects that would qualify for funding.
I believe we need to continue pushing for putting dollars into our local businesses and residents and to ensure that everyone can navigate the financial impacts of COVID-19.
Campos: 1. No one knew how to respond or react to this new pandemic, period! They were scared, damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
2. But, after further investigations and actions of the city, their response time has gotten worse. I can understand it in the beginning (no one knew what to do). Now they are lost and still only want to keep themselves clean while causing other endangerments to the citizens of El Paso, Texas.
3. We need to open businesses, schools, churches, etc., again.
Gutierrez: City Council, as a whole, failed the citizens of El Paso. The media releases were more about the status of results and impressing the need to stay home, to wear a mask, to wash hands.
Meanwhile, we were waiting eight hours in the height of the heat for a test and, oftentimes, waited needlessly because they ran out of test kits. City Council and the leadership did not replace the health director, a key position was left unfilled, and thus we were at the mercy of getting information from the county staff or leadership and the public was left with no answers and lost trust in our leaders at city, county and state levels.
Council should have been at these test sites day in and day out to investigate the delays, the chaos, and not relying on state officials to provide information to the public. Instead of waiting for direction and solutions, they should have been driving them, making our community the priority. The restrictions placed were good, but not enforced, thus community spread occurred. We now know that the consequences are (more than 500) deaths and growing.
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What are your thoughts on taxation issues, specifically within District 2?
Annello: I think that District 2 residents have spent too much money on economic development incentives and outward growth that does not benefit them. I have not supported 380 agreements, which are our economic development incentives, that do not pay a living wage. I have also fought hard to bring forward a vote on impact fees. Impact fees are fees that are not covered 100 percent by developers on the far East and West sides of the city that cover water infrastructure. It is unfair that my residents are responsible for covering these infrastructure fees.
I also believe that there has been excessive use of non-voter-approved debt through certificates of obligation for vanity projects and projects that are grossly over budget and inflated. I have stood against the use of this type of funding for projects that do not qualify for necessary infrastructures, like archways and art projects in each district.
Campos: 1. We need to give all businesses, homeowners, and all who have been affected not just in District 2 but throughout the city tax breaks by reducing the city dependency on the taxpayer.
2. That the city, county, state, and federal tighten their belts.
3. Stop hiring and give more responsibilities to the people throughout their departments.
4. Cut spending that is not necessary.
5. Ask every city employee to come up with ideas to reduce the budget.
Gutierrez: The incumbent voted to raise taxes three years in a row; taxes were raised three years in a row. What did the residents of our district get for those tax increases? Many feel that raising taxes is a necessary evil, but they want to see something come out of it.
There was little to no improvement in our district, yet the news ran story after story of groundbreakings or ribbon-cuttings or new projects all in other districts. Alleys went unpaved, littered with illegal dumping, streets remained dark at night, and potholes got bigger. It was clear that District 2 had no representation, no one working for them. Their taxes went to subsidize projects in other districts.
Are you satisfied with the street services provided in District 2 and if not, then what changes would you propose?
Annello: I believe the new process, in which the city scores every street in the city yearly and selects the ones to be repaved by need, has been efficient. I think the need to repair the streets is much greater than we have funding capacity for, though. I supported bringing additional dollars for streets to the voters, which was ultimately shut down by Mayor Margo. I will continue to fight for funds to be allocated to not only street resurfacing but also the reconstruction of our most traveled roadways.
Campos: 1. Never have been satisfied. I am in construction; I see the misuse of funds. The lack of responsibility and the over cost on projects.
2. I would make it my responsibility to oversee these projects and make people accountable.
Gutierrez: No, nor should anyone be satisfied. The street resurfacing being done today in District 2 is still from the 2012 bond but nearing completion. Aside from street resurfacing, which is a citywide need, the street services I see as a need in District 2 are traffic-calming measures and beautification.
The cost to install speed humps is very cost-effective now, and I would certainly support providing additional funding to this program as speeding is a huge issue in our neighborhoods. There are also some key corridors in District 2 that could be greatly enhanced by landscaped medians that would serve both as traffic calming and beautification.
Where do you stand on law enforcement issues overall and for District 2’s constituents?
Annello: The first thing I did in office was work with our Police Department and our local mental health authority, Emergence Health Network, to create the crisis intervention team which is the first mental health unit in the El Paso Police Department. I did so because we had an alarming number of police-related shootings in response to mental health crises.
I understand that there are issues in our police force, and I have worked hand-in-hand with the community and the Police Department to find solutions to these problems. I believe in absolute transparency and that means in all departments, which is why I have spent my time in office working toward building an independent oversight committee for the El Paso Police Department.
I have spent the last year working to push grants that serve a community purpose in El Paso, an area where we have lacked the effort to do so for so long. This includes grants like the PAL program, which pays officers overtime to interact with the youth and build relationships to de-escalate future incidents on both sides.
I understand that my community is concerned with an increase in crime in the area, which is why I supported more police academies for officers and vehicle replacements.
Campos: 1. Law enforcement is spread out thin. I respect them, but I would ask that we spend more time educating the youth of our city in order to prevent future problems.
2. I would develop a different method for our enforcement retirement. I would implement or try to implement a 25-year retirement instead of 20. Their last five years would be in schools, educating our youth about why we need the Police, Fire, EMT, and other first responders.
Gutierrez: I fully support our law enforcement community. I acknowledge there are issues within these organizations that can and need to be addressed. I would never vote to defund or reallocate funding from EPPD but would seek to better fund our department to provide better resources for recruiting and training at the academies and to educate and train in areas of mental health, domestic violence, homeless issues, and race relations.
Who are you supporting for mayor?
Annello: I’m not getting involved in that race.
Campos: I am reviewing all the candidates. I want someone who understands the need for all and not just one party or a group. At this time, I am still undecided. I would like to see someone in a middle age group, young, aggressive, with dreams and ideas.
Gutierrez: Oscar Leeser 100 percent.
If you had one message that you wanted to share with District 2’s constituents, what would it be?
Annello: My message to District 2 constituents is this: We need to become more proactive and work together to create the type of community where we can raise a family, work well-paying jobs, and share this beautiful city in which we live. I’ve been reflecting on this for some time now, especially in the context of what is taking place around us. Globally, we are facing a deadly pandemic that has halted travel and weakened economies. In the United States, we are in the midst of a charged presidential election, and national politics have deepened divisions amongst us. And here in El Paso, we witnessed the manifestation of hate when a stranger came to town and took the lives of 23 of us on Aug. 3, 2019.
Despite all of that, I wake up every day knowing that we can and have worked together to make El Paso stronger. El Paso Strong means taking the hands of our family, friends, and neighbors to pull each other up when devastation strikes. I think that should be translated into the way we govern locally, by working directly with our neighbors and businesses. Each day that I go to work at the city of El Paso, I keep that in mind.
That is why I have often been the lone voice on City Council in fighting for what I believe in and what District 2 believes in. I believe wholeheartedly that we need to work as a community tobuild a better City Council, one that is reflective of the people and needs of the city. I want to work with the public, with the businesses, and with my neighbors to do that. There is much at stake on the ballot this November, and we should all keep that in mind when voting. The outcome of this city race will impact you every single day, and we should ensure that we do not take a step backward, but instead, move our needs and our community forward.
Campos: My message is simple: I will work for our district and dedicate myself to all types of improvements.
Gutierrez: I am you; born, raised, and worked my entire career in District 2. I know our issues, our struggles, and I know the people. I will continue to do what I have been doing for the last 15 years, working for you to get things done. My focus will be District 2, and District 2 only.