EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – A divided El Paso City Council voted 5-4 on Tuesday, Feb. 28, with Mayor Oscar Leeser casting the tie-breaking vote, to terminate City Manager Tommy Gonzalez’s contract.
Brian Kennedy, Alexsandra Annello, Joe Molinar, Art Fierro and Leeser voted in favor of the move.
Voting “no” were Cassandra Hernandez, Isabel Salcido, Henry Rivera and Chris Canales.
The vote provides notice to Gonzalez that they are terminating his contract in 120 days without cause.
“The council today exercised the clause that’s in the agreement. I haven’t talked to any of them, so I’m just insinuating that they want different leadership and again they are just exercising the clause in the agreement,” said Gonzalez after the vote, explaining that he did not expect this turn of events.
What the vote means is Gonzalez will remain city manager for the next four months, while the City Council determines the next steps, according to Laura Cruz-Acosta, city spokesperson.
“Today the City Council exercised its right to end the city manager’s employment with the City of El Paso in accordance with his amended and restated employment agreement,” Leeser said in a written statement several hours after the vote.
“I want to thank Mr. Gonzalez for his eight years of service to the City. Mr. Gonzalez will receive a 120-day written notice as per his contract, and we will inform the public additional steps going forward once they are finalized. As always, I will proceed in the best interest of the citizens of El Paso,” Leeser added.
Some City Council members, like District 3 Rep. Cassandra Hernandez, voiced their support for Gonzalez and called Tuesday’s agenda item and a call to vote unfair.
“I don’t agree with the way this item has been brought forward. I think there could’ve been a different time and a place that we’ve taken this action,” Hernandez said.
Chris Canales, District 8 representative, said Gonzalez should be given an opportunity “to demonstrate that he can carry out new direction from the new City Council.”
However, a number of El Pasoans came to share their thoughts on Gonzalez, some saying El Paso needs a new city manager.
“The city manager, I greatly believe, and I know many people greatly believe, that there was a failure on how they protected us and our city during the worst COVID outbreaks,” one El Pasoan said.
Former District 3 Rep. Jose Alejandro Lozano criticized Gonzalez’s leadership.
“He believed that he could take care of the city by himself. He doesn’t need City Council to approve or disapprove of anything he wants to do including the certificates of obligation,” Lozano said.
Isabel Salcido, representative for District 5, said this decision would cost the taxpayers $900,000, implying that was the price of the buyout stated in Gonzalez’s contract.
Gonzalez has served as El Paso’s city manager since 2014. Prior to that, he served as city manager for the City of Irving, Texas.
His original contract, approved back in May 2014, called for an annual base salary of $239,000, with annual deferred compensation of $15,000, temporary housing assistance and other perks, according to the El Paso Times archives.
His contract has been amended five times since he was first hired.
On Aug. 23, 2022, the council voted in favor of contract amendments with the goal of keeping him in El Paso. The ultimate goal of the amended contract was to sweeten his employment terms to persuade him to not leave for the city manager job in Frisco, Texas, where he was a finalist for the position.
His current contract expires in 2029 with a base salary of $431,000. That represents an 80 percent increase from his initial city salary. His amended contract also includes additional perks.
The amended contract passed last August by a 6-2 vote with Molinar and Annello voting no to the proposed amendments.
Tuesday’s item was placed back on the City Council’s agenda by Molinar and Kennedy, who was elected to the council in November.
KTSM reached out to both Molinar and Kennedy ahead of Tuesday’s vote and we were told they would not comment prior to the meeting.
After the vote, both Kennedy and Molinar refused to comment.
Kennedy has been an outspoken critic of Gonzalez’s contract during his campaign for City Council. Kennedy was sworn into office on Jan. 3.
Two other new city council representatives, Canales and Fierro, also expressed concern over Gonzalez’s contract during their campaigns. Fierro voted to terminate Gonzalez’s contract, while Canales was against the move.
Gonzalez served for 22 years in the U.S. Army, retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
He has a master’s degree from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, and a bachelor’s degree from Eastern New Mexico University.