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El Paso voters may decide changes to city manager’s role

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The El Paso City Council will begin reviewing possible changes to the City Charter in an November 2022 amendment election after a city representative said voters should decide on whether to switch back to a strong mayor form of government.

The mayor-council form of government, or strong mayor form of government, would give the elected mayor significant administrative and budgetary authority. The council, meanwhile, is elected and maintains legislative powers. Some cities appoint a professional manager who maintains limited administrative authority.

Joe Molinar

Northeast city Rep. Joe Molinar, who took office in January, said his decision to place the item on a City Council agenda in late April to call for a November 2021 city charter amendment special election was spurred by constituents’ concerns.

City Council, after heated debate during the April meeting, ultimately decided to have the city attorney begin preparing a list of possible amendments for the November midterm elections.

“The feedback (from City Council) was not great. However, we will have a charter review committee, whether they formally meet in 2021 or 2022. We will have one — period,” Molinar said. 

Molinar said the discussion and debate is going to evolve as the process unfolds and anticipates it will be controversial.

“The seed has been planted,” he said.

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.

El Paso has had two city managers since voters adopted the system. Joyce Wilson served from 2005 to 2013. Tommy Gonzalez has been city manager since 2013.

The mayor, as per the city charter, presides over City Council meetings and votes in case of a tie and 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.

Oscar Leeser

Mayor Oscar Leeser, who took office in January after a sweeping defeat of former Mayor Dee Margo, campaigned on reforming the duties of the city manager.

Leeser said he supports the city manager form of government, but with additional checks and balances. He plans to work with the council and city attorney on determining what changes should be recommended. He said lawmakers have to study how the current form of government was intended nearly 20 years ago and determine if it can be made more efficient today.

“It’s a little early to discuss what’s going to be on the November 2022 (ballot), but I think it’s good to start the discussion,” Leeser said.

Voters would have to approve any changes to the city manager form of government, or whether to change forms of government through a city charter amendment election.

East-Central city Rep. Cassandra Hernandez said she’s concerned that an elected mayor, if tasked with leading the city, could waver to political pressure.

Cassandra Hernandez

“A strong mayor form of government really is just like a political form of government, as opposed to a formal professional administration,” she said. “It really just muddies the water and, in my opinion, you don’t get a lot done.” 

The council addresses possible charter amendments every two years, but its last attempt in 2020 was scrapped after the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread in the community.

West-Central city Rep. Alexsandra Annello said she has heard concerns from a frustrated constituency about the current form of government, but thinks there are ways to strengthen the system.

One option, Annello said, would be to create a board of managers where city officials would answer to the council. Currently all city employees and department heads answer to the city manager, who in turn, answers to the council.

Alexsandra Annello

“There are many things that can happen and people are not happy and we should be listening,” Annello said. “I don’t believe that going back to the (strong) mayor form of government is a step forward.”

She said it is inappropriate for a city representative to recommend changing the form of government on a charter election.

“It’s just awkward. I think those are things that should be done by citizen referendum if they want to go that far,” Annello said.

Other Texas cities have used citizen referendums to either try to change forms of government or reform the role of the city manager.

Recently in Austin, a group called Progressive Reform was able to get a measure on the May ballot there to switch to the strong mayor form of government, which would have allowed the mayor, starting in 2023, to have had veto power and eliminate the city manager position. 

The citizen petition garnered more than 24,000 signatures, but failed at the polls. More than 85 percent of voters opted to keep the council-manager form of government.

A citizen referendum also made it to the ballot in San Antonio in 2018. The measure would have limited the city manager’s term to eight years and limited pay to 10 times the amount of the lowest paid city employee, among other changes.

The measure passed with 59 percent of the vote.

Jason Grant, director of advocacy with the International City/County Management Association in Washington D.C., said there is a lot of frustration with government broadly. He said that frustration is trickling down from the federal level to the local stage.

“At the local level, the capacity to change the form of government exists that doesn’t at the state and federal levels,” he said.

Grant said whichever form of government is being debated should serve the entire community. He said the local government is there to provide programs and services such as parks and libraries that people want and will see immediately.  

“You start to see the dialogue and discussion around what makes the most sense, and what’s the most effective form of government — that is where you see a lot of the debate that starts to come in,” Grant said.

Cover photo: City Manager Tommy Gonzalez, right, harshly rebuked city Rep. Peter Svarzbein at the Aug. 4 council meeting after Svarzbein said it was unhelpful for the city manager to say public health officials have been wrong at times about COVID-19.

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Elida S. Perez

Elida S. Perez is a longtime community and investigative reporter. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities reporter with the Salem, Oregon, Statesman Journal.

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