With the abrupt firing of City Manager Tommy Gonzalez, the El Paso city government now has two key leadership roles to fill – a city manager and a police chief – and lots of uncertainty on how it’ll handle either.
Under the city’s council-manager form of government, the council hires only two employees – the city manager and city attorney. The city manager hires leadership staff, including the police chief. The city was expected to begin a national search for a police chief after the death of longtime El Paso Police Chief Greg Allen, with the final selection up to Gonzalez, but that is now in limbo.
“I think that the City Council has put us in this very peculiar position with what comes first, the chicken or the egg?” city Rep. Cassandra Hernandez, who voted against firing Gonzalez, told El Paso Matters.
Most immediate is appointing an interim city manager, which will be addressed at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. An agenda item calls for establishing a procedure to appoint Cary Westin, a former senior deputy city manager, as interim.
Westin, a retired Army colonel, joined the city in 2014 and retired in May, but still works for the city part time as a senior operations officer under Gonzalez.
Gonzalez was fired by the City Council on Feb. 28, and received a written 120-day notice of termination on March 1. That makes his last day of employment June 29, although he could leave the position sooner. A separate item on Tuesday’s agenda calls for defining a process to select a permanent replacement for Gonzalez.
Gonzalez did not respond to an El Paso Matters request for comment.
Hernandez said although both positions are important leadership roles, hiring a new city manager should take precedence.
“I think that’s what’s most important right now,” she said. “I think we have a very capable and competent interim police chief, so that we can stay the course to hold down the fort.”
Gonzalez appointed Peter Pacillas, who served as an assistant chief under Allen since 2009, as interim police chief in February. Pacillas graduated from the El Paso Police Academy in 1988.
Not everyone agrees on which position to fill first – or whether Gonzalez should be the one to appoint a police chief.
“You have somebody like me, who feels like (Gonzalez is) qualified to make that decision before he goes, but you might have, say, (city Rep. Alexsandra) Annello … who doesn’t feel that and they should wait and bring in a new city manager,” said city Rep. Henry Rivera, who voted against firing Gonzalez.
Annello said regardless of whether Gonzalez or a new city manager leads the effort to hire a police chief, the search needs to include extensive community outreach. Annello voted to fire Gonzalez.
The process to hire a permanent police chief is expected to be lengthy, said Deputy City Manager Mario D’Agostino, who oversees health and public safety.
D’Agostino said there are not many details to share, but staff is finalizing a contract with an outside firm for a national search and a community engagement process is being developed. He said that the process will likely take well beyond the time Gonzalez has left to finish his term.
City Rep. Chris Canales, who voted against firing the city manager, said there are still a lot of unanswered questions about future planning.
“It’s an unfortunate situation where I don’t know – it’s hard to say what the plan is,” Canales said.
Past police chief, city manager searches
Joyce Wilson, who was hired as El Paso’s first city manager in 2004, has experience in hiring a police chief and had a front seat in the process to hire her replacement when she retired.
Wilson appointed Allen as police chief in 2008. She said the City Council at that time was not involved in the police chief’s hiring and did not ratify the hire with a vote.
“Some council (members) felt like they should be involved, but they’re not, according to the (city) charter,” she told El Paso Matters in a phone interview. “The appointment of department heads, including the police chief, is made by the city manager – and you want it that way to keep them from getting caught up in politics.”
But Wilson said the police chief hiring process was extensive and included numerous community meetings and panels, meetings with stakeholders, and several rounds of interviews with candidates.
Wilson said the city wanted to hire from within the department and did not hire a national search firm. Before being promoted to chief, Allen served as an assistant chief under then-police Chief Richard Wiles.
When Wilson announced she would retire in 2014, the city contracted a national search firm to find her replacement. That process got muddled, but Gonzalez was ultimately hired in May 2014 and started on the job that June.
“I was totally out of that process,” Wilson said.
Although she was not included in the City Council’s effort to replace her, Wilson said the council created a city manager search committee made up of people appointed by the mayor and city representatives.
She said the committee worked with the city’s human resources department and the search firm to go through applications and narrow down the field of candidates.
During the transition, an interim city manager was appointed and Wilson served in a consulting role.
The next 120 days
Aside from replacing Gonzalez and hiring a police chief, some city representatives have differing views on what needs to be prioritized over the next 120 days.
City Rep. Isabel Salcido, who voted against firing Gonzalez, said the council should waste no time in beginning the process to find a permanent replacement for him and ensuring there is a transition plan.
“They’ve made their decision (to fire him), but we need to be prepared and I don’t want to be trying to get prepared 120 days later,” Salcido said, adding a firm needs to be hired to recruit talent immediately. “We need to get that already on the move.”
City Reps. Joe Molinar and Brian Kennedy, who led the effort to fire Gonzalez, had differing views of what needs to take priority over the next four months.
Molinar said the city budget for the next fiscal year needs to take priority and expressed confidence in staff who now work under Gonzalez.
“There’s going to be strong, capable leadership as far as moving forward with a budget so, yeah, we’re gonna be in good hands,” Molinar said.
City staff regularly provide council with budget updates throughout the year leading up to the adoption of the budget and tax rate in August.
Kennedy wasn’t as certain in his response.
“I think those are conversations that are in a state of flux right now, trying to put together a game plan,” Kennedy said.