El Paso mayor candidates offer differing views of how they’d lead city government
The winner of El Paso’s mayoral election will be tasked with leading the city during tumultuous times brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The mayor, who presides over City Council meetings and votes in case of a tie, also has power to veto actions of the council. The mayor also works with the City Council to develop policies for the city manager and staff to execute.
The mayoral race has drawn six candidates, including incumbent Mayor Dee Margo, former Mayor Oscar Leeser, Veronica Carbajal, Calvin Zielsdorf, Carlos Gallinar and Dean “Dino” Martinez.
In recent weeks tensions among Margo, City Council and City Manager Tommy Gonzalez have boiled over at times during public meetings, leading to arguments and tense moments on key issues related to COVID-19 policies. Margo has also publicly criticized members of the City Council and limited the amount of time that questions can be asked of city staff during public meetings.
Zielsdorf, Martinez, Gallinar and Carbajal shared how their leadership strategies will help move the city forward as it pertains to working with the City Council and city manager as well as the public’s role in shaping policy if elected. Leeser and Margo did not respond to requests for comment about their leadership styles.
Gallinar, a long-time city planner and small business owner, said he understands that there are limits to what the City Charter allows the mayor to do, but he said setting the culture for city government is an important responsibility.
“I believe the mayor sets the culture not only for City Hall, but the tone and culture for how we will govern and how we will lead. So if you look at the last two administrations, Mr. Leeser and now with Mr. Margo, they have not done a good job of leading or inspiring or making sure that we set a vision and a culture of innovation,” Gallinar said.
To help unify the council, Gallinar said the mayor needs to be helpful, needs to be of service and needs to make sure that he brings people to the table.
“Let’s make sure that we are inviting other members of council to join and participate and make sure they feel that they themselves have a role to play,” Gallinar said.
Regarding the city manager, Gallinar said he thinks Gonzalez has been disrespectful to members of council and should be relieved of his duties.
Gonzalez, who reports to the mayor and City Council, has clashed with some members at times. During an August meeting, he responded angrily to city Rep. Peter Svarzbein’s statement that he didn’t think it was helpful that Gonzalez said public health officials have been wrong about COVID-19 at times and accused the city manager of offering editorial comments in meetings. Gonzalez shot back that he was using “facts.”
“I do believe that the culture at City Hall has become too toxic. I believe that we need a fresh perspective and we need fresh blood,” Gallinar said.
Gallinar said he doesn’t fault Gonzalez for “having to fill a leadership void” he thinks should have been filled by previous mayoral administrations.
When it comes to public participation, Gallinar said he wants to make sure he has an open-door policy for the community. He reiterated that he would post his calendar online so the public knows who he is meeting with and whether those meetings include anyone that contributed to his campaign.
“Every person of El Paso should feel welcomed and should be able to approach the mayor’s office without having to jump through hoops,” Gallinar said.
Gallinar also said, if elected, he plans to have monthly town hall meetings. The meetings would allow members of the public to speak and be at the table to offer opinions, ideas and criticism if necessary.
“You have to be able to answer tough questions,” Gallinar said. “At the end of the day government is made better when you have more, not less, public participation.”
Gallinar said if he is elected he will be a full-time mayor and will suspend his business, Gallinar Planning & Development LLC.
Carbajal, a long-time attorney with the nonprofit Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, said her experience as an attorney, manager and as a group coordinator will guide her leadership of the city.
Carbajal said her style has always been to do the work, know how to supervise and know how to delegate. Carbajal said her staff has been dedicated to working on issues because she shows them she is also invested in the work.
“That is a big component of morale, is you being able to show someone that you are part of a team. You are not a dictator, you have to be able to listen, to give feedback that you can incorporate into what you are doing,” Carbajal said.
Carbajal said there isn’t enough time and respect given to City Council members who want to exercise their right to question city staff. She said some members of the council are complacent.
“Right now, we don’t have a lot of knowledge on the City Council. We don’t have a lot of inquisitive minds. We have people who are just ready and willing to just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ without really thinking about the issues,” Carbajal said.
She said her leadership approach with the City Council will be to provide them as many facts as possible on a given issue. She also wants to provide that information to the constituents who may be affected by a given problem. That information would help them make decisions on any policy change recommendations, she said.
As for the city manager, Carbajal said the need for that position has diminished since voters approved pay raises for city elected officials in November 2018.
Prior to the election that amended the City Charter, city representatives were earning $29,000 per year and the mayor was earning $45,000. The vote raised salaries to be equal to the El Paso County area median household income and one and a half times that amount for the mayor.
The adjustment, which went into effect in 2019, put city representatives’ salaries at about $45,300 per year and the mayor at about $67,950, to be adjusted annually.
Carbajal said that means elected officials should be working full time.
“I think it goes back to elected officials taking their role seriously and understanding that this is hard work and being able to do homework yourself and being able to tell your employee — the city manager — what to do and not the other way around,” Carbajal said.
Carbajal said the city needs to reevaluate whether a city manager is needed once Gonzlez’s contract is up for renewal. She said there would still be management roles within the departments, but there doesn’t have to be a city manager that is given so much authority and power. Eliminating the city manager form of government would require voters to approve an amendment to the city charter.
Carbajal said the mayor’s office needs to be accessible and responsive to constituents. She said people who participate in public comment also need to be respected. She said she has seen some individuals get cut off during meetings.
“I think there is a concerted effort to silence the public instead of showing gratitude that they took the time to get involved in local politics,” Carbajal said.
She said her goal as mayor would be to improve upon transparency and accessibility so that the public feels comfortable giving feedback to the city.
Carbajal also said the public should have as much information and communication as possible to understand policy. She said the city needs to meet regularly with neighborhood associations and ensure that all communications are in English and Spanish and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Zielsdorf, a former El Paso firefighter and current swim coach for Cathedral High School, said he is not happy with the current city leadership.
He said there have been instances prior to the pandemic, when meetings were held in person at City Hall, where the mayor and some city representatives would often leave the room while residents were providing their public comments.
“The type of leadership right now, it shows nobody cares about what’s going on except for those who stay and those are only less than a handful,” Zielsdorf said.
Zielsdorf said his leadership style would be to make sure the government is being held accountable.
“If we are acting on the city’s behalf and we are acting inappropriately, or trying to be better than everybody else, we need to be held accountable,” Zielsdorf said.
Zielsdorf said the mayor and City Council should not be quarreling or behaving in a petty manner. He also said collaborating with the council will be crucial to accomplish goals.
“To unify the whole city board behind a vision is necessary and then I think you have to do that by listening to the city and what the city is asking for,” Zielsdorf said.
Zielsdorf said he is not opposed to working with the city manager if elected, but he does not like the city manager form of government. He said he would not immediately make a concerted effort to get rid of Gonzalez.
“We have a city manager under contract. If we cancel that contract then we have to pay him out and I think that would be a huge waste of money if we don’t get anything in return,” Zielsdorf said.
The city manager’s contract was renewed in June 2019 for another five years of employment. In June 2024, the contract will be automatically renewed for another two years unless the City Council gives a 120-notice to Gonzalez prior to the expiration of the renewal term.
Zielsdorf said he thinks Gonzalez does the best he can with the parameters he has and is often used as a scapegoat for policies the City Council has him implement. As far as working with Gonzalez, Zielsdorf said the city manager’s previous football experience makes him a team player.
“When you are coached by a certain coach who has a certain idea, you follow through with that plan and that’s what you do, so I think if we have this guy and we paid this much money for him. Let’s see if he’s worth his money and lets see how he can transition us over into this new way of city governance,” Zielsdorf said.
He said the public has to play an important role in shaping policy. He said, if elected, he will schedule regular town hall meetings that include district representatives. He also said the meeting time for City Council meetings needs to be changed to allow for more public participation.
City Council meetings were being held at 9 a.m. on Monday and Tuesdays every other week. Since March the meetings were held virtually for safety precautions during the pandemic. In mid-September, the council pushed the virtual meeting start time to 3:35 p.m. for some meetings.
Zielsdorf said the public should be playing a “policing” role of elected officials.
“That’s the city’s responsibility as well. We need to make sure that all facts are out, that all information is provided before decisions are made and they need to be given time to take that information in and digest it and then give their opinion,” Zielsdorf said.
If elected, Zielsdorf said he would retain his job as a swim coach.
Dean “Dino” Martinez
Dean “Dino” Martinez, a former Army Airborne Division Ranger, said his experience in the military helped him learn how to take charge and work in teams.
“If you want to build a great city it takes everybody’s heads to get together as a team, a team effort, a family to turn around and stop pointing fingers, but start putting heads together,” Martinez said.
Martinez said, if elected, he would like to see himself showing leadership by not fighting or arguing in public with city representatives.
“Let’s start getting together in a separate room with the mayor and see if we can come back with something we can agree on,” Martinez said.
Martinez did not specifically discuss how he would work with the city manager, but said working as a team is how the city will be able to get things done.
Martinez said it also is important to meet and engage with the public.
“You are not just in an office as the mayor. (We need to) start connecting with the people around El Paso,” Martinez said. “They want to see a face, they want to see what they elected, what money is being spent and why its being spent.”