KTSM has obtained the 2017 performance evaluation of soon-to-be former City Attorney Sylvia Borunda Firth which shows the El Paso City Council raising concerns of a lack of communication with them, her use of outside counsel, and their worries about potential conflicts of interest.
Firth received an average score of 2.96 on a scale of 1-5 in seven categories. That’s down from her 2016 evaluation in which she was evaluated on three categories and scored a 4.14. Firth’s current evaluation showed she scored the lowest in “Legal Consultation” while earning the highest marks in the category of “Personal and Professional Attributes.”
The evaluations were conducted in March by all nine city council members and Mayor Dee Margo. The documents, obtained through the Texas Public Information Act, are dated April 2. That’s 18 days before Mayor Margo would present Firth a breakdown of a controversial roughly $250,000 compensation package that included a severance payout as well as compensation for unused sick and vacation time.
City Council voted 7-1 Tuesday to affirm the separation and release agreement entered into by Margo and Firth on April 26.
Firth was evaluated in the following categories: Relationship with the Council, Management Skills and Abilities, Personal and Professional Attributes, Fiscal Management, Communication, Legal Consultation, and Provision of Legal Services.
An analysis by KTSM identified how each council member and the Mayor voted. City Representative Cissy Lizarraga ranked Firth the highest while City Representative Alexsandra Annello ranked Firth the lowest.
While Firth was ranked on a numeric scale, each council member and Mayor were also allowed to note, in their own words, their observations about Firth’s job activities. Amongst the council members’ concerns was a lack of communication from Firth.
“The City Attorney has been known to hold back information until asked or requested,” City Rep. Cassandra Hernandez Brown wrote. “The City Attorney needs to be more direct with legal advice in regards to charter or legal violations.”
City Rep. Dr. Michiel Noe was more direct. “She needs to trust the council and stop withholding information,” he said.
At least two council members noted their concerns with possible conflicts of interest for Firth.
“ … During the collective bargaining in 2014 with the Fire Fighters Union – Local 51, Mrs. Firth’s sister was hired by the City Attorney’s office to represent the City during legal negotiation,” wrote City Rep. Henry Rivera.
Rep. Annello also had concerns regarding Firth.
“Provide notification to city manager, mayor and city council of any and all potential conflicts of interest, or perception of conflict” Annello wrote.
As KTSM reported back in April, sources at City Hall who asked not to be identified, shared concerns that Firth had a conflict of interest in a city-owned property in which her husband, Victor Firth, had interest. The property at 311 Montana Street was set to go before the council for rezoning. However, the item was pulled before the council could vote on it after City Attorney Firth allegedly admitted that she had a conflict, the sources said. Victor Firth has denied any impropriety.
“The City Attorney is doing her job well and meets standards. However, I can’t confidently say she is going above and beyond expectations in finding creative and proactive solutions to city issues,” wrote Rep. Claudia Ordaz Perez.
For Rep. Peter Svarzbein, the evaluation posed a different question in which it appears he wrote in green ink in a draft version of the evaluation provided to KTSM by the City.
“Why evaluation via Mayor’s office?” he wrote. “2017-via HR. 2016 – via HR.”
Svarzbein was the sole member of City Council to vote against approving Firth’s separation agreement Monday.
Linda Thomas, head of Human Resources for the City of El Paso, was not reachable Tuesday afternoon to answer why the Mayor handled the more recent evaluation. Juli Lozano, Public Information Manager for the City, said it was not clear if a policy change caused Firth’s evaluation to be conducted outside the purview of the Human Resources Office.
Mayor Dee Margo wrote the fewest comments on Firth’s evaluation, writing the words, “legal outsourcing?” when asked to describe things Firth did that he wanted her to discontinue.
However, Margo’s evaluation may not need words to get insight into his thinking. Under the category, Relationship with Council, Margo underlined the word “timely” under the answer, “Follows up on all problems and issues as identified by City Council in a timely efficient manner.” Margo scored Firth a 2 in that category.
Under Legal Consultation, Margo underlined the words, “timely decisions” and “initiating action” when asked, “Is the City Attorney decisive in reaching timely decisions and initiating action?” Ultimately, he scored Firth 2 for that.
City Rep. Sam Morgan also wrote very little, noting he wanted to see Firth work on a particular relationship. “Form a good, trusted, functional relationship with the City Manager,” he wrote.
Though Rep. Lizarraga gave Firth the highest marks, she left a handwritten side note. “As the most junior member of Council, I have had a limited opportunity to observe and assess the City Attorney’s performance,” she wrote.
There were also positive comments from some of the council members. When asked to name two things the City Attorney is currently doing effectively, Rep. Noe wrote, “She is willing to put forth the effort to complete a task on time.” Ordaz Perez wrote, “I appreciate that Sylvia and the office here developed a reputation in the community that we take every suit seriously.”
Margo confirmed to KTSM on Tuesday following Council’s vote that Firth was leaving the City, in part, due to the evaluations she received.
“Changes must be made,” Margo said.
Firth’s last day is scheduled for May 31 at which time she will receive her payout.