Update 6:20 p.m. Nov. 3: This story has been updated to include coment from city Rep. Isabel Salcido.
Former Democratic state Rep. Joe Pickett is challenging incumbent city Rep. Isabel Salcido in the November 2022 election to represent District 5 on the City Council.
City Council Districts 1, 5, 6 and 8 are up for election on Nov. 8, 2022. The districts include the Upper Valley, West Side, East Side, Segundo Barrio, Chamizal and Mission Valley.
Pickett, who resigned in 2019 from his seat representing House District 79 in the Texas Legislature after a cancer diagnosis, recently filed for the appointment of a campaign treasurer in the District 5 race next year.
He began his political career on the City Council in 1991 and went on to represent District 79 in the Texas House of Representatives from 1995 to 2019.
Pickett said many factors led him to launch a political comeback for the City Council seat, including multiple interactions with the city when he was trying to build commercial properties. He said he was frustrated with city planning and inspection fees and increasing El Paso Water environmental services fees, among other issues.
He said the frustration and lack of responses from city officials spurred him to file a lawsuit against the city in October 2020. He alleges the city of El Paso isn’t using a fee that is purportedly supposed to pay for damages to streets caused by the city’s own sanitation trucks. He calls the fee a tax that’s being used for other city expenditures.
In the lawsuit, Pickett seeks damages of up to $100,000 and a declaratory judgment preventing the future application of the city of El Paso’s environmental service franchise fee to Pickett or his property.
El Paso Matters talked to Pickett about why he decided to run for office. Responses have been edited for clarity and length.
El Paso Matters: Why have you decided to return to politics after three years?
Pickett: It started as one concern, then another, unanswered questions I had for the city, then the overall complacency and disregard for taxpayers. I can see no plan from the city, in general, for doing anything but taking care of the wealthiest and connected.
Fast forward and add high property taxes, support of only big donors and big business, lack of support for small business, no plan to grow a relationship with Fort Bliss, wasting huge amounts of money on projects that only benefit a few, lack of transparency in the budget process and fundamental services and needs of the everyday El Pasoans. That has pushed me towards running.
(City spokesperson Laura Cruz-Acosta said the city has a strategic plan, developed with input from stakeholders from across the community, which serves as a roadmap that enables the City to address decades of neglect in the areas of public safety, streets and quality of life such as parks, museums and libraries. She said the plans and actions to address these issues came directly from resident input provided during the budgeting process and at various community meetings. Cruz-Acosta said the City’s budget process, implemented seven years ago, provides constant two-way communication between staff, council and the community. The city conducts a public survey for community feedback regarding the budget. She also said the city has a chief military liaison that frequently meets with Fort Bliss garrison leadership to understand the Commander’s priorities to determine how the City can assist in providing resources.)
El Paso Matters: What made you decide to run for City Council District 5 and not run for a different office? Did you ever consider trying to return to Austin as a state representative?
Pickett: I have been asked repeatedly the last two years to get back in, both locally and from other parts of the state, but I am moved more by the lack of leadership at the city than what I could do at this moment in the Legislature.
I remember the (El Paso) Fire Department coming into my real estate office (in the 1990s) and doing a cursory inspection then apologizing for writing me a “bill” for the inspection, saying they were under orders from the city. The city was trying to raise revenues in ways like that. When I got elected, that fee went away and I worked on many, many cumulative issues that supported small business and just average El Pasoans.
El Paso Matters: You left your seat representing state District 79 in 2019 due to health reasons. How is your health currently?
Pickett: It was not good, but (I) got better and am in remission. I don’t want to waste time while healthy. I am the type of person who can’t sit still anyway.
El Paso Matters: How would you represent City Council District 5 differently than current city Rep. Isabel Salcido?
Pickett: Treat everyone the same — big dogs and the rest of us. Ask questions, ask questions, ask questions. I would not let the city manager dictate my support of financial issues without knowing exactly what the long-term consequences are and I would support the backbone of any successful community, small business and the average person who thinks someone has their back. I would pressure the city to stop signing checks without filling in the dollar amount until later.
Salcido did not initially respond to El Paso Matters’ request for comment due to a communication issue.
She later stated “his response is not at all truthful about what I do and how I represent my constituents. The things he said he would do are among the things I already do: I treat everyone the same, I meet with my constituents all the time in one-on-one and community meetings, I carefully study pending city business and ask critical questions during our City Council meetings. As a small business owner who understands the difficulties of running a business I definitely do everything I can to support small businesses.”
Salcido also said “his completely false and belittling comment about me letting the city manager dictate my support for issues is particularly insulting – I can think for myself just fine and do not have any man dictating my opinions to me. I think former Rep. Pickett saw this interview as an opportunity to take potshots at me, the sitting councilwoman, without me being there to answer him, and then forcing me to respond to him already on the defensive.”
“We have made so many improvements to city operations and processes over the last few years to the tune of millions and millions of dollars in annual savings across the many city departments, and I think former Rep. Pickett just isn’t aware of that because he hasn’t gotten himself involved. I didn’t see him at a single District 5 community meeting or City Council meeting until he announced that he was planning to run for this seat, and then suddenly he started turning up to be critical,” Salcido said.)
El Paso Matters: Have you already decided which issues you want to focus on in your campaign?
Pickett: Create an atmosphere for small businesses to thrive. Stop collecting secret fees for things unexplained to the public and show them exactly where their money is going and stop incurring so much debt.
El Paso Matters: What are you most proud of when it comes to your previous tenure as a state representative?
Pickett: It is hard to answer and attempt to be humble with 24 years in a leadership position. I saw from day one that there was little involvement from “us” in whom we sent to Austin. But I would have to say the medical school was one of the highest. I was tapped by the Republicans when I was chairman of the subcommittee on Appropriations to find millions of dollars in cost savings across several state agencies. In return, I was able to be one of the key players in securing tuition revenue bond authority through the appropriations process. Few people then or now realize issues like these are not done in standalone bills but in the appropriations act.
I was on the committee that negotiated the original tobacco settlement money that both the University of Texas at El Paso and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso still have interest revenue from. I even wrote and passed the original Border Health Institute legislation.
When I rotated over to transportation issues, I wound up passing two constitutional amendments that to this day are still the largest new revenue generators in the history of the Texas Department of Transportation.
I am proud of creating the Silver Alert that is a statewide rescue system for senior citizens.
It is safe to say I became the most prolific writer of transportation-related issues covering funding, procurement, safety, design and planning in the state. I am the only one to have removed two tolls, one here, the César Chávez Express Toll Lanes, and one in the Rio Grande Valley, from our statewide system. The other one, the Loop 375 Border West Expressway here, is delayed and I could keep it from happening, I’m still working on it too.
El Paso Matters: What would you change about your previous tenure as a state representative? You were considered a moderate Democrat when you served. Do you think the parties have shifted too far to the right and left?
Pickett: I would not change anything. I surprised both Democrats and Republicans at times as the sole vote on some issues, but I knew I was doing the right thing. Many times over the years present and past governors and candidates of both parties have sought my help and advice on issues that were important, like transportation and general revenue spending.
El Paso Matters: How do you feel the direction of the El Paso City Council as a whole is heading in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recovery?
Pickett: Under the leadership of our current mayor, I think things in general are doing well. I wonder about the waste of COVID relief dollars that came into our community before his tenure began, that have been used to acquire buildings and such for no COVID-19 purpose that I can see. I wonder what that will ultimately cost us in the end.
(Cruz-Acosta said at the height of the COVID-19 crisis, the city made several decisions that were initially questioned but that later proved to be wise decisions, which contributed to the City of El Paso becoming better than most and leading the state and nation by double digits in overall vaccine numbers and in segmented populations like senior citizens and the youth. She said by establishing public health facilities geographically positioned throughout the community, the city can be extremely proactive and cost-efficient by having established sites instead of having to pay for pop-up sites in perpetuity. So, the decision to establish clinic sites has made the city government more agile, she said.)
El Paso Matters: What would you bring to the table if elected in 2022?
Pickett: I will repeat the detailed involvement I put forward as a City Council member, and use my experience as an appropriator who dug into the weeds of state agency budgets to prioritize the “need to’s,” before “want to’s.” I’d use the relationships I still have with state agencies and resources to support El Paso and jump on a bigger plan to support Fort Bliss and doing so, not only helps us, but them stay in the limelight of the federal government.
El Paso Matters: What is the status of the lawsuit you filed against the city?
Pickett: It’s too bad, isn’t it, that a taxpayer has to file a lawsuit instead of the city just coming clean on a simple question. We are waiting for the 384th District Court to rule if I have standing to continue. The City of El Paso got scared during the initial phase where we started asking for proof of fees through the discovery process.
(Cruz-Acosta did not comment on the pending litigation, but reiterated the city’s budget process provides constant two-way communication between staff, council and the community. She said the city conducts regular budget updates throughout the year during City Council meetings as well as an annual budget survey that includes the opportunity for the public to participate in town hall meetings. The city has increased budget survey participation from only 40 resident responses in 2014 to more than 8,000 this past year, she said.)
El Paso Matters: Is this lawsuit a top priority for you?
Pickett: Yes! Win or lose, standing or not, it proves the City of El Paso is hiding financial issues, the collective magnitude of millions and millions of dollars.
El Paso Matters: Do you think this lawsuit will affect your candidacy?
Pickett: Yes! I think the rest of El Paso would like to know what the millions of dollars collected through these, what seem to be small fees monthly, are for. I am told by attorneys, yes, I am legally able to run for office.
Cover photo: Joe Pickett, a former member of El Paso’s City Council and state representative, stands inside an antique streetcar, his new renovation project, at his shop on Oct. 30. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)