Improperly worded agenda delays discussion of El Paso city manager selection

By Cindy Ramirez
El Paso Times
Originally published May 19, 2014

A special council meeting intended to answer questions about the city manager selection process on Monday lasted only about 15 minutes when the city attorney said the agenda item was not properly worded.

City Attorney Sylvia Borunda Firth advised the City Council that the agenda item was a discussion “concerning the quality of legal advice and performance of city attorney” and could not touch on the city manager selection process.

“This is in nature a performance evaluation, so that’s really all we can talk about,” Firth said. She added that a discussion on her work would have to be in executive session as it constituted a personnel issue. “You will violate the Open Meetings Act if you do anything beyond just participate in a performance evaluation of my work.”

Firth said she recommended that no public comment be taken as it was not usual practice to take input on a personnel matter. At least one person had signed up to speak at the meeting.

Firth didn’t recuse herself from presiding as the city attorney of record during the meeting.

To that end, Rep. Eddie Holguin asked a deputy city attorney to restate what Firth said “so that we don’t have in tomorrow’s paper that Sylvia gave us advice on herself.”

City Reps. Cortney Niland and Michiel Noe had called the special meeting last week requesting clarification on whether the mayor and council may have violated the Open Meetings Act by not taking a public vote to begin negotiations with one of the finalists on May 8.

The two said they had become increasingly uncomfortable with the city manager selection process leading up to today’s vote to officially hire former Irving, Texas, city manager Tommy Gonzalez for the job. They both said they support Gonzalez, but wanted to ensure the process has been proper.

“I wanted to make sure that before we decide on anything tomorrow that we are doing this appropriately, legally,” Noe said, adding that he wanted that assurance in writing. “I wanted it on the record, from our city attorney, that this is (legal), and if we could, also get the reasonings for her opinions as well.”

Firth handed the mayor and city representatives some documents which she said could not be distributed to the media or the public because it was attorney-client privilege.

After the meeting, some city representatives said they couldn’t release the document on Firth’s advice but hoped it would be released today.

“All it says is why the action we took was appropriate,” Niland said. “I questioned why we can’t release that document, and I would like, in an effort to be transparent, to be able to release it (today).”

Mayor Oscar Leeser and some representatives in attendance gave Firth high praise for her work.

“I happen to think the quality of legal advice that Ms. Firth has provided us has always been accurate, as far as her performance, same manner,” city Rep. Emma Acosta said. “I have nothing but commendations for her.”

Holguin echoed her sentiment, as did city Rep. Larry Romero.

City Reps. Carl Robinson, Ann Morgan Lilly and Lily Limón were not at Monday’s meeting.