Update 9:10 p.m. June 6: This story has been updated to include comments from city Rep. Isabel Salcido.
City Rep. Peter Svarzbein is alleging that Mayor Oscar Leeser threatened him with physical violence in February, an accusation that Leeser disputes. Another city representative who witnessed the incident largely backs Svarzbein’s account.
During a heated exchange at Monday’s City Council meeting between Svarzbein and Leeser, Svarzbein made a reference to a past threat from Leeser without offering an explanation.
“You physically threatened me before this dais,” Svarzbein said while the council was discussing the city manager’s contract extension.
While Svarzbein did not expand on the past threat at the meeting, the city representative provided the details of the past threat to El Paso Matters later on Monday.
In an interview, Svarzbein said the threat accusation stems from the Feb.1 City Council meeting, where he approached the mayor and city Rep. Isabel Salcido after the meeting because Leeser was not allowing city representatives to speak on an item related to a low-income housing tax credit.
Svarzbein said the mayor told him during the February meeting that he was being disrespectful.
“He (Leeser) continued to insist that I was being disrespectful and told me to shut my mouth,” Svarzbein said of the Feb. 1 incident. “I was seeking clarification about the treatment of the council (and) he (Leeser) said ‘keep talking, keep talking’ then he said ‘shut your mouth, or I will shut it for you.’”
Salcido said she recalls most of the exchange and heard Leeser say “keep talking, keep talking,” but did not hear him tell Svarzbein to shut his mouth because she was gathering her belongings.
Salcido said Svarzbein approached Leeser and her because the mayor did not allow her motion to be acknowledged during the meeting.
“I was packing all my stuff — you know when you’re just hearing it get heated up and then I and then I walked away,” Salcido said, adding the mayor was then following Svarzbein around while they continued to argue.
She also said she thought Leeser acted unprofessionally.
Svarzbein said Leeser clenched his right fist after the threat to shut his mouth.
“At that point, I was concerned about him escalating this conversation to physical violence,” Svarzbein said, adding Leeser followed him through council chambers and continued to berate him until the mayor eventually returned to his office.
Earlier story: The El Paso City Council votes to override Mayor Oscar Leeser’s veto of a contract extension for City Manager Tommy Gonzalez
Svarzbein said he had not brought up the issue before because he was hoping the mayor’s behavior would change.
“It’s just unfortunate, again, that we’re in this situation,” he said after a heated exchange between them on Monday. “Nobody should feel threatened to speak their mind. I wasn’t elected to be a rubber stamp to anyone or anything.”
Svarzbein said he believes the mayor’s behavior was a violation of the city’s code of conduct and he now plans to file a formal complaint. He said the complaint would go to city Rep. Cissy Lizarraga, who is the alternate mayor pro tempore. Svarzbein is mayor pro tempore, which means he presides over City Council meetings when Leeser is absent.
Earlier on Monday, when Leeser was asked about the threat accusation, the mayor responded to El Paso Matters via email and said, “I have no idea what he’s talking about.”
Monday evening, after Svarzbein provided the details of the alleged threat, Leeser said in an emailed statement that Svarzbein is attempting to divert from the controversy over extending City Manager Tommy Gonzalez’s contract, which Svarzbein has supported and the mayor opposed.
“It is regretful that in a situation where as mayor, I exercised my authority to veto an important issue — in which the response I received from the community overwhelmingly supported my action — that Rep. Svarzbein is attempting to divert attention from his controversial vote today by writing a revisionist history of a conversation of almost four months ago,” Leeser said in the statement.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that city Rep. Isabel Salcido believed both city Rep. Peter Svarzbein and Mayor Oscar Leeser acted unprofessionally after the February City Council meeting. She said Leeser was the only one acting irresponsibly.