Candidates in the runoff election for City Council District 1 have focused on the salary and performance of one candidate while he ran a mostly taxpayer-funded nonprofit organization, and whether the other is reluctant to debate.

The runoff to represent the area that covers the Upper Valley and a large section of the Westside started as a crowded field of seven, but was narrowed down to Brian Kennedy and Analisa Cordova Silverstein on Nov. 8. Kennedy received 41% of the vote compared to Silverstein’s 25%.

As soon as the general election results came out, Silverstein started taking aim at Kennedy’s tenure with the El Paso Sports Commission by criticizing his salary and the use of tax dollars. 

Kennedy, 67, previously served as CEO of the El Paso Sports Commission that operated the El Paso County Coliseum for the county. The sports commission planned all events at the coliseum and the county had very little oversight per the contract.

His total compensation in 2019 of almost $370,000 was about twice as high as that of the CEO of one of El Paso’s largest nonprofits, the YWCA of El Paso, according to federal tax records. The YWCA had an operating budget of $36.5 million, almost 13 times the $2.9 million budget of the El Paso Sports Commission.

“She says I was in control of my salary completely because I was the CEO and that’s not correct,” Kennedy said, adding the board set his compensation.

Silverstein, 37, a political newcomer and tech project manager who has worked in public service, said her criticism of Kennedy’s tenure at the sports commission is accurate.

The sports commission was awarded a 20-year contract by the El Paso County Commissioners Court in 2003 to privately run the El Paso County Coliseum. The commission was supposed to generate additional revenue through sports events at the coliseum, but the bulk of its revenue came from the county government dedicating most of its total hotel-motel tax dollars. Kennedy served as CEO until 2021 after the county restructured the contract.

Silverstein said she doesn’t think Kennedy and the commission made ethical decisions in using hotel-motel tax money. The tax money should have been used for tourism, promoting the coliseum and promoting the city. Instead, she said, much of it went to pay Kennedy’s salary.

The most recent federal tax filings for the nonprofit El Paso Sports Commission – for 2017 through 2019 – showed that almost 13% of the organization’s $8.8 million in revenue in that period went to pay Kennedy’s salary. His total compensation over those three years was more than $1.1 million, according to the El Paso Sports Commission’s tax filings.

Silverstein also has accused Kennedy of misspending tax dollars while leading the sports commission. She cited the findings of a 2019 audit conducted by El Paso County’s internal audit division, which said about $149,000 of hotel-motel tax funds were improperly used to pay for county employee picnics from 2010 to 2018.

The expenses were not in contractual compliance or in compliance with hotel tax fund guidelines, the audit shows. It was recommended that the funds be refunded to the hotel tax fund to which Kennedy agreed.

“EPSC agrees employee picnic donation payment using HOT funds was done in error and will ensure this error does not occur in the future,” Kennedy said in the audit response.

The auditor noted the funds were reimbursed.

“He stated that it was misquoted – well it was misquoted for eight years in a row,” Silverstein said. “Then the question is ‘would he have paid that money back if it wouldn’t have been identified in the audit?”

The candidates in the City Council District 1 runoff have been sending various flyers to voters.

Kennedy said the error was addressed before the audit report was completed.

“It says it was merely moving funds from one account to another and it was already handled before the report even went out,” he said. “It says this has already been solved, so big deal.”

Kennedy said he is trying to keep his campaign based on issues and has asserted that Silverstein refuses to debate him.

“I’ve offered a debate probably four or five times, saying let’s just sit down, and the two of us talk about issues,” he said.

In November he launched a video series on his campaign Facebook where he discusses a topic sitting next to an empty chair in place of Silverstein.

Silverstein said Kennedy sent her one email with a subject line that reads “Let’s debate.”

The body of the email sent from Kennedy on Nov. 16, provided to El Paso Matters, states “Isn’t it time for a face to face debate? Let’s talk issues!” Kennedy does not state in the email a venue for the debate nor an organization that would host the debate. Political debates are typically organized by community groups or local media organizations.

Silverstein said she did not respond to the email because her family was dealing with a personal matter.

“I think if it’s something that the other districts are doing, and it’s moderated by a news outlet or something in a non biased way – sure – but other than that, we have participated in every single forum,” she said.

Both candidates participated in an El Paso Matters and PBS El Paso partnership to film candidates individually answering issue-based questions.

Kennedy said he sent the email to Silverstein twice and did not receive responses. He also said he made an effort to get a debate organized when the pair were invited to participate separately in the Fireside Chat series with Desirae Manzanares of the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The series features candidates being interviewed by Manzanares one-on-one.

In an email exchange, provided to El Paso Matters, Kennedy asks Manzanares to switch the format.

“Rather than have two individual chats what if you had two chats with both of us together to help the voters see the difference in the two candidates to help with (their) decision making,” Kennedy said, in part, in a response to Manzanares.

Silverstein opted for the original format.

“A fireside chat is not an environment for a debate,” she said.

Early voting for the runoff continues until Tuesday, Dec. 13, ahead of the Dec. 17 election.

Elida S. Perez is a senior reporter for El Paso Matters. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities...