Change may be coming to the way the El Paso City Council conducts its business as a committee is set to start reviewing possible city charter amendments, including eliminating the mayor’s veto and tie-breaking power.

Instead of the mayor voting only during ties, one of the proposed charter amendments would allow the mayor to vote on every agenda item.

“(It’s a way) of bringing more accountability and transparency to all of the council members, including the mayor and one way to look at that is by having the mayor vote on important items for our communities,” said city Rep. Peter Svarzbein, who proposed the charter amendment.

The mayor, as per the city charter, presides over City Council meetings and only votes in case of a tie. The mayor also has the power to veto actions of the council.

The city is in the process of determining what city charter changes it will ask voters to approve during the November 2022 election. The City Council recently provided a list of possible amendments to its advisory committee, which will research and make recommendations.

The advisory committee will have its first meeting virtually at 4 p.m. Feb. 24.

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. The last time the City Charter was amended was in 2018.

City Rep. Alexsandra Annello wants the advisory committee to review if members of council can hire two full-time employees. She also wants the committee to review the dates for municipal elections, which were previously conducted in May.

Annello additionally wants there to be an independent redistricting committee process.

Voting boundaries for elected officials at the local, state and federal level are redrawn every 10 years following the release of decennial U.S. Census data. The new boundaries for the eight city representative districts are redrawn to reflect changes in the city’s population.

City representatives appoint members to its redistricting commission which meets to establish new boundaries that are recommended to City Council. The council votes to approve final changes to city representative boundaries.

Annello said she wants the process to be independent of the City Council, where the commission is able to make the recommendations based on community feedback and not have elected officials propose changes to maps that are established by the commission.

“I really think that it should be a public process and not be led by elected officials,” Annello said.

An El Paso City Council meeting on Oct. 26, 2021. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Annello also proposed a review of the citizen petition process to see what other cities in the state do. Citizen petitions allow voters to propose ordinances through an election if enough signatures of qualified voters are collected.

City Rep. Cassandra Hernandez wants the committee to find out what it would take — a referendum or a charter amendment — to allow the city to move toward imposing a fee for city streets maintenance.

“Street improvements are one of the most expensive and highly demanded requests by our residents,” Hernandez said. “There has to be a concerted and strategic plan to address the systemic needs of our street infrastructure without political interference.”

Hernandez said if this action is approved by the voters, the city charter would allow the public to initiate a referendum to impose a fee that would focus on the necessary maintenance and safety of city streets.

“In lieu of utilizing a future bond or non-voter approved debt, which is often at the will of political environments, vetoes and elections, there may be an appetite to allow the municipality to implement a fee to go towards the upkeep of city roadways,” she said.

City Council will receive recommendations in June and approve final recommendations in August before amendments are placed on the November ballot. Voters will have the final say for any changes to the city charter during the election.

Other City Council recommendations to be reviewed:

– Increase the number of city representative districts when the population gets to 900,000 as opposed to 1 million, as the City Charter currently states. If the population were to reach 900,000 one more city representative would be added. There are currently eight city representatives.

The population of the city of El Paso in 2020 was 678,815, according to data released in August. The figure represents a 5% increase over the prior census in 2010.

– Allow city representatives to appoint a chief of staff and allow the district representative to hire an employee for the time the representative is in office.

– Change the term limits for City Council representatives to remove the current 10-year cap if a representative is elected to fill an unexpired term.

– Review the mayor’s role regarding intergovernmental relationships for best practices in other cities.

Cover photo: An El Paso City Council meeting on Oct. 26, 2021. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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...