Who should be in charge of El Paso’s city government?

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Skyline of the city of El Paso.

Photo by: Raul Martinez / KTSM 9 News

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – Who should be in charge of city government?

Northeast representative Joe Molinar says constiuents regularly tell him they want to see the city’s administration fall under the mayor once again.

“I received phone calls. I received emails. I receive different things from different people. And, they would like to see a return to a strong mayor form of government. This is a huge issue, I understand that,” he said.

But city government cannot change on a simple City Council vote. It would require a charter amendment for residents to vote on. And, even if it were to pass, questions remain about whether the current City Council would retain their terms or have them renewed.

The debate was spurred by Molinar’s agenda item on Tuesday night, where he publicly acknowledged a growing call to switch how the city is run. His item called for a charter election which are held to change the rules by which the local government operates.

In 2018, a charter election was held to raise the pay of the City Council and Mayor while basing compensation on median household income established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Molinar, who was recently elected to the District 4 City Council seat, said his decisions impact the whole city and was brief in his remarks.

His comments were quickly met with opposition by most of his colleagues on the council who argue the council-manager form of government adds continuity and professionalism to the city’s administration.

“I personally do not think it’s appropriate for a City Council member to bring something like that forward,” said District 2 city Rep. Alexsandra Annello. “I believe that should be done by citizen petition. But I do recognize that you hear those concerns. I heat them all of the time as well.”

The city of El Paso transitioned from a strong-mayor form of government to a centralized-manager position in 2004 when a charter amendment changed the model. El Paso and Houston were the last major Texas cities to have strong-mayor styled governments up until the vote.

At that time, city Reps. had two-year terms, which prompted frequent turnover.

Today, Houston still has the strong-mayor form of government but El Paso has gone on to have two city managers in charge of running the city.

Under the strong-mayor form of government, the mayor is charge of appointed a chief administrator and oversaw leadership in different departments.

In a council-manager form of government, the city manager is not subject to elections and is able to provide a professional approach in administrative practices within the city’s operations. The council and mayor serve as the manager’s overseer and set legislative policy.

In Austin, voters will consider Proposition F, where residents will decide if the city should run under a strong-mayor form of government. The proposition would give the mayor authority to run the city and eliminate the role of the city manger.

Under the form of government, the mayor would be able to veto any legislation passed by the City Council unless a supermajority worked to override it. Most City Council representatives oppose the proposal.

District 3 city Rep. Cassandra Hernandez said strong-mayor forms of government invites corruption and less efficiency.

“You don’t change a form of government if you don’t like the person there today,” Hernandez said.

Representatives Cissy Lizarraga, Henry Rivera, Isabel Salcido and Peter Svarzbein noted it was not the right time for the city to consider the change.

Lizarraga claimed the city needs to keep an eye on expenses due to financial setbacks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While El Pasoans are still facing the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, I think that any funds that we would need to spend if we were to hold a special election to amend the charter, even if less than that amount could be better used to provide key services or reduce the impact to the tax rate,” she said.

City officials say holding a charter election in November or next Spring would cost a little less than $400,000 as the city would be able to share costs with the county.

But while most council members were reluctant to entertain the idea of changing the city’s form of government, a majority were in agreement that charter amendments should be explored next year. Several said there were concerns about cost but also mentioned that the city needed to focus on redistricting.

“There could be in the redistricting process, charter changes that would come from that process we need to be aware of,” Svarzbein said.

This year, the council will appoint members of the public to a commission for a redistricting effort due to the 2020 Census. The process may have districts redrawn throughout the city based on population figures from the census.

As for charter amendments, the council agreed to pursue a charter amendment election in November 2022 to coincide with four City Council elections. An Ad Hoc committee will be formed to evaluate and make recommendations to the council for measures on that ballot.

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