City Manager Tommy Gonzalez’s contract extension to 2029 will stand after the El Paso City Council on Monday voted to reverse Mayor Oscar Leeser’s veto of the contract change.
The vote came after a heated discussion during the special meeting, which ended in a 6-2 vote reversing the mayor’s second attempt to veto the contract extension.
City Reps. Cassandra Hernandez, Henry Rivera, Cissy Lizarraga, Peter Svarzbein, Isabel Salcido and Claudia Rodriguez voted in favor of overturning the veto. It takes six votes to override a veto.
City Reps. Alexsandra Annello and Joe Molinar voted against overturning the veto. The two have consistently voted against changes to the city manager’s contract.
The special meeting was wrought with technical difficulties and a shouting match between Leeser and Svarzbein. The argument ensued when Svarzebin interrupted the mayor while he was speaking.
“Now I remember why (former) Mayor (Dee) Margo didn’t like you, why Mayor Margo disrespected you, because you seem to want to interrupt me, you seem to have a problem with the prior mayor, you have a problem with me and it’s got nothing to do with me,” Leeser said before Svarzbein interrupted again.
Margo and Svarzbein periodically had contentious discussions during Margo’s term. Svarzbein said Leeser physically threatened him, but did not elaborate.
“You physically threatened me before this dais,” Svarzbein said.
Leeser did not acknowledge the accusation, rather redirected the conversation to the issue about the contract extension.
Leeser responded to El Paso Matters via email and said “I have no idea what he’s talking about.”
Follow up: Rep. Peter Svarzbein says Mayor Oscar Leeser told him in February “shut your mouth, or I will shut it for you.”
The council had to recess the meeting because Rodriguez, who attended the meeting virtually, could not get her video camera to work. Members of council have to be physically seen in order to vote, according to the city clerk.
Rodriguez, who previously hadn’t responded to El Paso Matters’ requests for comment, issued a statement after the meeting, saying she sees value “in having an executive employee of this caliber. ”
“I respect and agree with the decision of the Council to want to extend the City Manager’s contract and I also want to remind everyone that there is nothing illegal, abnormal, or wrong in this decision or in the timing of it all,” the statement reads in part.
Molinar said he has nothing against the city manager, but does not support the timing of the extension.
“(Mr. Gonzalez) you have done great things for our community,” Molinar said. “I have said that to you publicly and said that to you privately, but to me the timing of this is not correct. It does not sit well with me.”
Leeser said he wants to honor the city manager’s current contract that does not expire until 2024. Leeser reiterated that the veto has nothing to do with Gonzalez’s performance, rather the timing of the contract extension.
“It didn’t really make sense to continue to extend this contract when we have a contract,” Leeser said. “We have a contract that will continue to have Mr. Gonzalez continue to lead the city.”
Hernandez, who has advocated for the contract extension, said the action was taken to continue to provide continuity and momentum with the city’s leadership.
“I think this council has an obligation to look at the long term vision for the city and I think Mr. Gonzalez has been able to achieve that,” Hernandez said.
Several people spoke during public comment both in favor and against the contract extension.
Former Mayor Joe Wardy spoke in support of the mayoral veto and said the process to extend the city manager’s contract has not been transparent, adding the issue should have been discussed publicly. He also said he is concerned about the authority of the city manager.
Wardy served as mayor from 2003 to 2005 when the city switched from the strong mayor form of government to the council/manager form of government.
“I think a little bit has happened here where the managers assume an outsized role in city government. The city managers work for you. They are employees of the mayor and council and serve the citizens of the city of El Paso,” Wardy said. “It has nothing to do with Mr. Gonzalez, it is strictly about process and process not being followed and not setting a good example for this community.”
Dan Olivas spoke on behalf of Community en Acción in favor of the contract extension. The nonprofit is made up of non-partisan Latino business leaders that aim to support and build leadership in the community.
“The leadership in this community must reflect that having qualified Latinos in leadership positions helps our children in our community to aspire to ensure that leadership in our community accurately represents the demographic makeup of this community,” Olivas said, adding the city has seen tremendous growth under Gonzalez’s leadership.
The veto by Leeser marks the second time he has rejected the council’s effort to extend Gonzalez’s contract.
Gonzalez’s employment contract was not set to expire until 2024 and had two-year automatic extensions unless either the council or Gonzalez decided to part ways.
City Council initially extended Gonzalez’s contract on May 16 after he was named a finalist for another city manager job in Frisco, Texas. He removed his name for the running the same day the council extended his contract with other added bonuses. Days later, Leeser vetoed the contract extension.
The city of Frisco ultimately hired Wes Pierson, the city manager of Addison, for the job.
On May 23, the City Council, instead of voting to override the veto, deleted the item and renegotiated contract changes with Gonzalez behind closed doors. The council then voted 6-2 to extend his contract without a clause that would have allowed the city to pay Gonzalez up to at least $450,000.
Gonzalez was hired in 2014 to replace Joyce Wilson. His starting pay was $239,000 and has climbed 69% over the years to $404,377 along with multiple perks added to his contract along the way.
Leeser issued a written statement after the vote that said he does not take the veto action lightly.
“I did so thoughtfully and taking all issues into account. I did not — and still do not — believe that it is sound government or sound management to extend any employee contract prematurely and unnecessarily,” Leeser said in the statement. “The feedback I received from the community overwhelmingly supported my veto. That said, the vote has been taken and it is time to continue to move El Paso forward.”
Gonzalez is up for his annual evaluation this month which, if he receives an “exceeds standards” rating, entitles him to a 5% merit pay raise.