The El Paso city manager’s employment contract is set to be discussed by the City Council on Tuesday – months ahead of his annual performance evaluation.
City Reps. Brian Kennedy and Joe Molinar placed an item on the agenda calling for “discussion and action” on the city manager’s employment agreement – a lucrative and controversial contract that over the years has spurred discord between Tommy Gonzalez and some council members.
Gonzalez is not due for his annual performance evaluation until June, according to his employment contract that now pays him about $431,000 a year. The evaluation impacts his salary, benefits and the term of his employment, including extensions or termination.
The council can vote to terminate Gonzalez’s contract at any time, though doing so could be costly to the city and taxpayers if he’s terminated without cause.
Kennedy and Molinar declined to comment about their intent, saying the contract is a “personnel matter” although the item is on the regular agenda and not posted for executive session to be discussed behind closed doors with attorneys. The discussion is likely to be moved to executive session, although any vote resulting from it would have to be taken in open session.
Gonzalez did not return calls or emails seeking comment.
Kennedy, who was sworn into office Jan. 3 after winning the December runoff election, was outspoken about his disapproval of Gonzalez’s contract during his campaign.
“The way the current adopted city manager contract is written, there are few palatable choices,” Kennedy responded when asked about the city manager’s contract in an El Paso Matters candidate questionnaire, “The only ‘future changes’ available are you either live with it for seven more years, you can terminate, or you can increase pay and benefits.”
Kennedy also said he favored the city manager form of government, but expressed concerns about how it’s changed over the years.
“We’ve gradually drifted a long, long way from that, gradually expanding the scope and power to create a fiefdom. The city manager reports to City Council. You’d never know it. Council has basically abdicated its power and responsibilities. It’s time to re-balance that,” Kennedy said in his questionnaire.
This would not be the first time that the city manager’s employment contract has been discussed and negotiated prematurely.
Gonzalez, who was hired in 2014, has had multiple perks added to his lucrative employment contract over the last nine years.
Last year, the City Council entered into early contract negotiations after Gonzalez was named as a finalist for the city manager position in Frisco, Texas. His contract was not set to expire until 2024. The majority of the City Council ultimately voted to extend Gonzalez’ contract through 2029 and add a variety of benefits. Molinar and city Rep. Alexsandra Annello voted against the extension and additional benefits.
During a filmed candidate forum with El Paso Matters and PBS El Paso, Kennedy said that he believed the City Council was “irresponsible with the contract.”
“It’s bad business to make an extension and give a whole bunch of benefits this far out from the end of the contract. They shouldn’t have done it and I won’t,” he said.
Molinar took office in 2021 and was not up for re-election therefore wasn’t part of the El Paso Matters voter guide that included the candidate questionnaires.
However, two other new city representatives, Chris Canales and Art Fierro, also expressed concerns about the city manager’s employment contract in their El Paso Matters’ candidate questionnaires. Canales said would not support giving the city manager additional benefits before his contract expires in 2029.
Fierro said the changes made by the council eroded public trust.
“(It) weakened confidence in the city manager form of government and Tommy Gonzalez’s effectiveness, and deepened concern that the city is on a path lacking accountability to the voters,” Fierro said in his candidate questionnaire. “Council completely ignored established processes put in place for contract renewal upon nearing expiration.”