Hiring a new El Paso city manager is on hold as City Council on Tuesday rejected a recommendation to hire an executive search firm because the council wants to interview the top firms before selecting one.

“It’d be great that they would come in front of council, in front of the community and do a presentation,” Mayor Oscar Leeser said of how council wants the search firm selection process to proceed.

An item to hire the search firm was added to Tuesday’s agenda by city Rep. Cassandra Hernandez. But after an at-times contentious discussion, the City Council ultimately voted 5-3 to reject the recommendation.

City Attorney Karla Nieman said that if the council wants to have a role in interviewing the finalists, that would have to be stipulated in the language of the bid so that the companies are prepared.

“It’s quite out of the ordinary for the council to make a decision out of top three because then you would be in open session having to make decisions about which firm did better than the other and then there’s a level of scrutiny that you all fall under in terms of those types of interviews,” Nieman said.

City Rep. Alexsandra Annello said she wants the council to have a more participatory role in the selection of the firm.

“I mean, I was clear about that,” she said.

Tuesday’s move by council could delay hiring a permanent city manager until after February. Mary Wiggins, chief human resources officer, had initially estimated the search for a city manager replacement could last through November. Now she said that after the city hires the search firm it would be at least a six to eight-month process.

Tommy Gonzalez served as El Paso’s second city manager for about nine years before his controversial employment contract was abruptly terminated in February. He was hired in 2014 with a starting salary of nearly $239,000 which climbed to about $442,000 during his often tumultuous tenure. Gonzalez received an approximate $900,000 payout from the city before being hired as the city manager in Midland, Texas in July.

City Council had a similar item on a June meeting agenda to hire the same firm, but it was scrapped without explanation.

“Having a permanent city manager is imperative,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez and city Reps. Henry Rivera and Chris Canales voted against rejecting the bid recommended by staff. An initial motion to accept the recommendation to hire the firm made by Hernandez failed.

“If you reject the bids, then we have a competitive disadvantage of those who have already submitted a solicitation and their bid,” Hernandez said. “It’s disrespectful to those businesses. It sends a signal to the business community that the city is not open for business, because we’re going to waste your time and we’re going to reject your bids.”

City staff Tuesday recommended awarding the search contract to Baker Tilly US LLP, a public accounting and consulting firm headquartered in Chicago, for about $37,000. The recommendation was based on a national request for proposals issued in March.

Wiggins reminded the council that a standard request-for-proposals process includes a committee that evaluates the bids and scores the firms to make the final recommendation. Wiggins said Baker Tilly was the highest scoring firm through the procurement process.

“We had five proposals … we only had one score that passed,” said Nicole Cote, the city’s managing director of management and budget.

The City Council briefly discussed the possibility of having interviews with the finalists during a public meeting, but did not pass an official motion to that effect.

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...