El Paso City Council Reps. respond to questions about city manager and attorney raises

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EL PASO, Texas (KTSM)– For the second consecutive year, the City of El Paso withheld documents showing how City Council representatives and the mayor evaluated top city executives.

El Paso City Manager Tommy Gonzalez and City Attorney Karla Nieman have earned merit-related raises based on final scores on their 2021 performance evaluations.

The city attorney and city manager both answer to the City Council and the mayor.

KTSM 9 News obtained the annual evaluations through a request made through the Texas Public Information Act, however, documents including how individual council members rated the executives, handwritten notes and other forms were not disclosed.

In 2020, the city also attempted to withhold the detailed documents related to the city manager and city attorney’s evaluations. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton ruled in favor of releasing the information.

“The reason that governmental bodies do it is because they can get away with it. Quite frankly. There’s simply no punishment,” Joe Larsen, an open government lawyer with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said. “There’s a statute that says, a governmental body cannot ask for AG relief for the exact same stuff after they’ve already been told it has to be released. “

As KTSM first reported, A 5-percent increase to Gonzalez’s pay, based on a contractual entitlement, would put his pay for 2022 at approximately $398,401. A 2-percent increase, based on Nieman’s contract, would put her pay for 2022 at approximately $266,641.

On a scale of one to four, Gonzalez scored a 3.81 on his overall rating. And, Nieman scored a 4.18 overall rating on a scale of one to five on her evaluation.

Some City Council members spoke with KTSM about the evaluation process, although were not able to discuss specific details of the evaluation process as it happened behind closed doors in executive session. Not all city representatives responded to interview requests.

Cassandra Hernandez, the representative for District 3, told KTSM it’s been an inconsistent process.

“There needs to be a continuous standard on how these evaluations would take place,” Hernandez said. “Every single year has been inconsistent no clear streamline process.”

Hernandez said she was, however, happier with this year’s evaluation process compared to 2020.

“On behalf of my constituents, I had my voices heard and I don’t agree with all statements, I wish there were more things addressed with the evaluation process, this is made with the consensus of the city council,” Hernandez said.

District 2 Rep. Alexsandra Annello said she did not understand why all of the evaluation information was not released, including council members’ notes.

“I think we are public servants, both the city attorney and city manager are public servants I think it is our responsibility to release these documents to the public,” Annello said.

She added it was important for the public to see how the council and mayor hold the city attorney and city manager responsible.

“The evaluations are written out individually and I think that should be public record and I don’t believe the attorney general will change their mind on that,” Annello said.

The city manager’s contract states: “Unless the manager expressly requests otherwise in writing, except to the extent prohibited by or in material conflict with applicable laws and authorities, the evaluation of the manager shall at all times be conducted in closed session of the council and shall be considered confidential to the maximum and full extent permitted by law.”

District 5 Rep. Isabel Salcido sent KTSM a statement reading:

“The evaluations reflect an average of the opinions of the Mayor and Council, and I think the scores speak for themselves. On the whole, Mr. Gonzales has done a very good job executing the Council’s direction, and Ms. Nieman has provided us with strong guidance. Both of them have done well during a very challenging year, and I look forward to another year of working with them under better circumstances as El Paso emerges from the pandemic.”

Isabel Salcido, District 5 City Council Rep.

As far as the pay rate for the city manager, council members and the mayor explained the City looks at other cities and their manager pay rates.

“What we do is we pull 10 comparable to the city’s size and population, our size in our budget, as well as our overall departments and the number of employees. We have over 6,000 that the city manager’s responsible for and, we do recognize that we want to be competitive in the market to recruit the best and the brightest.” Hernandez said.

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser also sent a statement:

“The evaluations of the City Manager and the City Attorney were conducted in an inclusive manner by the entire City Council. Both evaluations were good and took into account their performance based on a number of factors surrounding a City of our size, with a billion dollar budget and 6,000 employees as we dealt with the Pandemic as a City.”

Oscar Leeser, Mayor

At this time, it is unclear if Gonzalez and Nieman will accept their merit increases as the city and its budget are still recovering from pandemic-related financial challenges.

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