With an overwhelming call by voters for a change in leadership at the helm of the city, many El Paso City Council representatives are looking forward to moving ahead in the New Year by focusing efforts to continue to battle COVID-19, among other priorities.
Former Mayor Oscar Leeser won more than 79 percent of the Dec. 12 runoff vote to oust incumbent Dee Margo. However, three of the four City Council incumbents on the ballot this fall — Reps. Alexsandra Annello, Cassandra Hernandez and Henry Rivera — were re-elected. City Rep. Sam Morgan, who is facing felony and misdemeanor domestic violence charges, lost his reelection bid to retired police officer Joe Molinar.
As the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the community, Margo was at odds with some city representatives — including the three re-elected by voters — over the city’s response to the pandemic. Margo engaged in heated arguments with some of the council members, sometimes hurling insults.
El Paso Matters reached out to the mayor-elect and council members who will lead the city beginning Jan. 5 to find out what the priorities will be for the first few months of 2021.
Rivera and City Reps. Isabel Salcido and Claudia Lizzette Rodriguez did not respond to El Paso Matters’ requests for interviews. City Rep. Cissy Lizarraga did not respond to a request for an interview, but emailed a statement. Salcido, Rodriguez, Lizarraga and Morgan sided with Margo on the city’s COVID-19 response.
Elected officials who responded said the city’s COVID-19 response will likely dominate the first few months of the year.
The new mayor’s priorities
Leeser, who served as mayor from 2013-17, said dealing with COVID-19 and unifying the City Council will be critical. He also pointed to a need to involve other leaders from around the region including those in New Mexico, Juarez and at the state and federal levels.
“I look forward to uniting the voice and making sure that our citizens feel that they have representation in their community,” Leeser said.
He said if everyone is working together and if more federal funding relief is distributed, the city government will be able to better serve first responders, health-care workers, families and small business owners by making sure funds are distributed in an equitable manner.
“There’s so many families out there today that are struggling. There’s about 130,000 people in food lines every week, so we need to make sure that we use it properly,” Leeser said.
Leeser, who also campaigned for reform of the role of the city manager, said one of the priorities will also be revisiting those responsibilities.
“As we get an office, we need to look at some of the responsibilities of the city manager and look and see how we can take some of those responsibilities and move (them) into the City Council and the mayor’s office,” Leeser said. “But I look forward to working with everybody, and then have a committee of citizens to kind of go over the new charter amendments as we move forward for the community.”
The council-manager form of government, also referred to as the city manager form of government, was approved by voters in 2004. The structure is designed to streamline the management of city staff and departments by allowing a city manager to execute the policies developed by the City Council.
Voters would have to approve any changes to the city manager form of government.
More transparency on COVID-19 clusters
Other issues Leeser said he wants the City Council to revisit is making public more specific information about where COVID-19 clusters are occurring. Margo and his four council allies regularly blocked release of information about specific businesses, hospitals, detention facilities and government offices with COVID-19 outbreaks.
A Texas attorney general ruling also allowed the city to withhold the information, although an open records expert said the ruling was flawed.
“We’ll discuss how we do proper disclosure and make sure that our community feels safe as they move around our community,” Leeser said. “I do believe it’ll be one of the early meetings that will be part of the discussion.”
With the addition of Leeser and Molinar, who said he also supports the release of cluster information, the council majority could shift in favor of releasing the information.
“The information needs to be current and needs to be relevant. If we release all information, that’s not going to do that area any good. It is not going to do the people that go or don’t go there (any good) so it needs to be current and needs to be relevant,” Molinar said.
Molinar also said the city’s COVID-19 response needs to be the top priority in the first few months of the year and that communication with other area governments, including El Paso County, is important.
Although Molinar will be the newest member of the City Council, he said he is familiar with many of his colleagues and hopes to have a positive working relationship.
“There’s a lot of work and I’m not saying I’m going to have all the answers because I’m not. I don’t have all the answers. But I, once again, (will) draw consent from the colleagues, the different organizations, the nonprofits, the faith-based (groups) here in El Paso,” he said.
The re-elected City Council members
Annello said she would also be willing to have another discussion about cluster data with the new administration.
“I think over the last few months those conversations were cut short, or insults were thrown because of disagreements, and I think working in an environment where we can just openly talk and hear each other out and make decisions based on our community’s needs or community’s wants (and) recommendations is going to be the most important,”
Annello also said she wants to focus on how the city is allocating funds for COVID-19 relief to help the community and look at the city’s budget priorities for projects that are being proposed in 2021.
Hernandez said she still thinks the information about clusters being public is important, but after seeing how the previous discussions about releasing the information unfolded, she does not think it would be productive to revisit the issue.
She said she wants to prioritize having conversations about the vaccination rollout and making sure everyone in the community has access to it.
Hernandez said the City Council received a preliminary map of 161 medical providers who applied to administer the vaccine and there is a shortage of providers from South-Central through the Mission Valley.
“Another one of my priorities is to make sure that those communities that have high populations of not only Hispanic residents, but also there is a very older population, over 60, over 65; predominantly Spanish speakers, and low socioeconomic status (have access),” she said.
Hernandez said she has several priorities for the beginning of the year, including revising city policies regarding development and public housing projects. She said she also wants to prioritize infrastructure such as street projects and economic recovery for struggling businesses.
Other returning council members
City Rep. Peter Svarzbein, who will be serving his last two years on City Council, did not say whether the issue of releasing cluster information should be revisited. He had been one of the leading advocates for release of the information.
“I think I’m focusing mostly on ways to keep our community safe and to look at making sure they have a very engaged and robust vaccination rollout,” he said.
Svarzbein said he also wants to look at ways to budget and safely resume low-contact city services for museums and libraries, and resume the curbside recycling program, which was suspended in December.
“We don’t know where we’re going to be in terms of community spread and the level of infection in our community two weeks from now, let alone two months from now. So there has to be a level of flexibility in terms of our response,” he said.
The number of COVID-19 infections has started to drop in the last few weeks following one of the deadliest spikes in cases and hospitalizations in the country. But health officials are still concerned there may be another spike if families gather over the holidays.
In an email, Lizarraga said, “This is my first experience with a major change in the makeup of the council. As always, I plan to keep representing the best interests of District 8 moving forward. I’ll be happy to welcome my new colleagues to City Hall and help them as they transition into office. I’m confident that the new council can work together for the betterment of El Paso and continue shifting to more data-driven decision making and informed processes, just as we have over the past several years.”