This story has been updated to include comments from City Manager Tommy Gonzalez and some City Council members.

In an unprecedented move, the El Paso City Council fired City Manager Tommy Gonzalez on Tuesday.

The council voted 5-4 with Mayor Oscar Leeser breaking a tie vote to give Gonzalez 120 days written notice of its intent to terminate his controversial employment contract after a motion made by city Rep. Brian Kennedy, who took office Jan. 3.

Without making any public statements, Kennedy and city Reps. Alexsandra Annello, Joe Molinar and Art Fierro voted in favor of firing Gonzalez. Leeser, who last year vetoed extending the city manager’s contract and pay raise, also did not comment publicly about his vote. City Reps. Cassandra Hernandez, Isabel Salcido, Henry Rivera and Chris Canales opposed terminating the city manager’s contract.

“They’re exercising the clause in the agreement, and that’s their prerogative to do so – and I respect that it’s a process and that’s what the agreement says,” Gonzalez said after the meeting regarding his contract’s termination clause. “I honor all of my agreements with cities that I work with.”

Gonzalez said the City Council terminated him without cause and was not sure why.

Kennedy’s motion included that the contract be terminated at the end of the required notification period – June 28 – and that council direct the city attorney to draft the mutual release agreed to in a contract amendment approved last fall.

That amendment was made to the city manager’s contract on Oct. 7 – two months after the previous City Council extended his contract and added benefits to his employment agreement. Kennedy and Fierro, along with Canales, were first elected to council in December and took office in January, while Salcido was re-elected to her seat.

Under that agreement, if terminated without good cause, Gonzalez would be paid a severance equal to 12 months of his base salary, in addition to unused vacation and sick leave and his car allowance to the date of termination, among other benefits. Gonzalez’s annual salary is about $431,000.

Gonzalez said the total amount of his severance package has not been calculated.

“We’re talking about a million-dollar decision here,” Salcido said, later adding that Gonzalez’s severance package would cost taxpayers “about $900,000.” 

She repeatedly asked “the authors of this item” to speak on the city manager’s termination and why the vote was before council.

Neither Kennedy nor Molinar, who placed the item on the agenda, have addressed why they wanted to discuss Gonzalez’s contract months ahead of his scheduled annual performance evaluation or why they voted to fire him. Both told El Paso Matters last week that they could not comment because it was a “personnel matter.”

“Let’s be careful with our decision,” Rivera said prior to Tuesday’s vote. “Mr. Gonzalez has done good for the community. I believe in his vision. He’s done great.”

The vote came after a tumultuous back-and-forth on whether to have the discussion in front of the public.

Prior to the vote, Hernandez implored the council members who were looking to fire Gonzalez to reconsider their intent.

“There’s a lot of speculation, a lot of rumors … as your governing body I think it’s important that we have the tools and all the information before making such a monumental decision,” Hernandez said. “I would ask for the courtesy from council that we take employment matters into executive session.”

With Leeser breaking tie votes, the council twice voted against discussing Gonzalez’s contract behind closed doors in executive session before outside legal counsel Lea Rimes advised council against talking about it in public.

About 30 people signed up to speak in support of and against the city manager.

Former Mayors John Cook and Dee Margo spoke in support of Gonzalez.

“I’m sort of confused as to what’s really going on here and I’ll just sit back and wait until we hear what the elected officials have to say,” Cook said.

Margo said that during his four years as mayor that Gonzalez did a great job when the city faced situations that included a humanitarian crisis caused by a migrant influx, the COVID-19 pandemic and the Walmart mass shooting.

“What I find hard to fathom is that some of you have been here less than eight weeks in your position – and how you could make a judgment on an individual to consider termination is beyond me given that length of time,” Margo said in reference to Kennedy.

Gonzalez was hired as El Paso’s second city manager in 2014, replacing Joyce Wilson. His base salary was $239,000 when he was first hired. He has had multiple controversial benefits 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.

In August, a majority of the City Council ultimately voted to extend Gonzalez’s contract through 2029 and add a variety of benefits following two mayoral vetoes. Molinar and Annello voted against the extension and additional benefits.

Gonzalez withdrew his application from the Frisco position following the initial negotiations.

Gonzalez said in his remaining 120 days he will likely prioritize reviewing the city’s long-term strategic plan with the City Council so that they can make any changes they would like to make.

“The systems we have built and put in place are gonna help the council and this community with more improvements in the future for the momentum to continue,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said it will ultimately be up to the City Council to determine who will serve as an interim following his departure, but he is confident there are many talented deputy city managers and city leadership that can be considered.

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...