Mayor, city attorney respond to allegations City Council violated open meetings law

Originally published May 13, 2014
There was some confusion over how El Paso’s City Council was able to announce its top choice for city manager when there was no vote.Mayor Oscar Leeser told the media Monday that City Council had discussed in executive session the conclusions of the committee that interviewed the city manager candidates and “came to a consensus” to move forward with Tommy Gonzalez.

Gonzalez is the former city manager for Irving, Texas.The mayor and the city attorney were careful to say City Council had “deliberated” and “discussed” but did not “decide” to ask Affion, the search firm overseeing the city manager candidate selection process, to negotiate a contract with Gonzalez.

The Open Meetings Act doesn’t allow a governing body to vote in closed session.

The Texas Open Meetings Act Handbook states: “A governmental body should not take a “straw vote” or otherwise attempt to count votes in an executive session.”
It also states: “On the other hand, members of a governmental body deliberating in a permissible executive session may express their opinions or indicate how they will vote in the open session.”

City Attorney Sylvia Borunda Firth sent a copy of the section of the Open Meetings Act that she says allows City Council to do what it did. In Sec. 551.074 under “Personnel Matters; Closed Meeting,” it reads, “This chapter does not require a governmental body to conduct an open meeting … to deliberate the appointment, employment, evaluation, reassignment, duties, discipline, or dismissal of a public officer or employee.”

Borunda Firth told ABC-7 Tuesday, what council did was uncommon — but legal.

“This is only our second time hiring a city manager,”  she added. “But if you look back on when (current City Manager) Ms. (Joyce) Wilson was hired, this was the very same process.”

Borunda Firth compared this move as similar to when City Council narrowed the pool of city manager candidates from 119 to 4, which was also not done publicly.