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El Paso city manager and city attorney get pay raises; officials seek to keep evaluation information secret

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City Manager Tommy Gonzalez and City Attorney Karla Nieman received pay raises following their annual performance evaluations, but the city is trying to withhold details of the decision for the second year in a row.

The city released the final evaluation forms Tuesday and the salary adjustments Wednesday, but requests by El Paso Matters through the Texas Public Information Act for more detailed information about the evaluations, including all forms, handwritten notes and scoring sheets have been forwarded to the state attorney general for a ruling on whether the city can withhold them.

Tommy Gonzalez

Gonzalez received a 3.81 score out of four on his 2021 evaluation. The score triggered a 5% pay increase of $18,971.25, boosting his salary to $398,401.73, according to the documents. 

Nieman received a 4.18 score out of five on her 2021 evaluation. The score triggered a 2% pay raise totaling $5,228.27, which boosts her annual salary to $266,641.52, according to the documents.

The city has hired attorney Austin Beck of the Davidson Troilo Ream & Garza P.C. law firm in San Antonio to ask Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton whether the remaining evaluation documents can be withheld from the public.

The city also attempted to withhold the documents related to the city manager and city attorney’s evaluations in 2020, but the attorney general ruled in favor of releasing the information.

Prior to 2020, the city released the detailed documents and evaluation forms to the public through Texas Public Information Act requests from 2017 to 2019 without seeking an attorney general opinion.

This year’s evaluations were performed with Mayor Oscar Leeser, back in office after voters ousted former Mayor Dee Margo. Leeser previously held the office from 2013 to 2017. 

Leeser and city officials did not respond to El Paso Matters’ request for interviews.

Previous performance evaluations for the city manager have not gone without controversy.

In 2015, Gonzalez’s first year on the job, Leeser and the council approved a controversial 25% pay raise for the city manager even though his contract only called for a 5% increase. 

The pay raise that year bumped his base salary up to $300,000.

In 2016 he waived his performance evaluation and raise. City Council at the time said Gonzalez would focus on a “2016 Statement of Goals and Expectations” that stemmed from the results of an outside ethics investigation following multiple investigations by the El Paso Times into city government. 

One of those investigations resulted in Leeser and the City Council’s hiring of an Austin attorney to look into a request by former city Rep. Larry Romero and Gonzalez to rebid the city’s financial adviser contract with a firm Romero had ties to.

The attorney found that Gonzalez was within his authority to initiate a request for qualifications for a new financial advising firm, but might have violated city purchasing policy by asking to shorten the bid window. The attorney also found possible discrepancies in Gonzalez’s financial disclosure statements, which the city manager corrected.

The goals and expectations resulted from discussions in executive session where a performance improvement plan had been debated.

In the 2017 evaluation the city manager received a 5% raise, but was upset about his evaluation score.

At that time, the evaluation documents had a score sheet that allowed the mayor and council to rate his performance on a scale from 1 to 5. Gonzalez received a 3.81 overall score. He argued it should have been higher because the “zero” answers by members of council — which meant “don’t know” —  should not have been calculated as part of the score.

In 2018, the city manager’s employment contract was amended to change the way the evaluation would be done to focus on the city’s strategic goals. The language in the contract reflected the changes.

He received a 5%, or $15,750, raise that boosted his salary to about $330,750.

In 2020 there was another controversy, that time over how former Mayor Margo handled the evaluation. Some City Council members felt their scores were not taken into account for the final scoring.

As a result, Margo rounded the city manager’s score from a 3.96 to 4, the highest possible rating. The city manager received a 5% pay increase that boosted his $361,362 by about $18,068.

Gonzalez was hired as the city’s second city manager in 2013, replacing Joyce Wilson, who served from 2005 to 2013.

In 2020, Nieman earned a rating of 4.7, which Margo rounded to 5, and received a 2% pay raise that placed her salary at $256,287.

Nieman worked with the city for about 11 years and served as interim city attorney before being hired for the role in 2018. Nieman replaced former City Attorney Sylvia Borunda Firth, who resigned in 2018.

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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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