What do you think is the most pressing issue El Paso is facing right now? How do you plan to mitigate?
We have a city government that prioritizes private interests over people and neighborhoods. We have a city government that is much more comfortable engaging with millionaires than it is with every day El Pasoans. On March 17th, the City Council spent more time discussing and approving the land swap with Great Wolf Lodge and Paul Foster than it did discussing actions to implement, enforce and financially support the public during the COVID19 “shutdown.” Over five months later, while still in the middle of the pandemic, City Council actually spent time debating the futility of charging bus riders 25 cents for disposable masks rather than giving them away since they were purchased with federal CARES Act dollars. Mayor Dee Margo felt the need to say that people should be charged because, “human nature takes precedence and if anything is free, they will not take care of them and discard them.” He completely missed the mark. These masks were not funded by the City; we desperately need everyone to wear masks, especially in enclosed spaces like public transit; bus riders already do the rest of us a huge favor by paying bus fees, removing vehicles from traffic, and reducing air pollution; and these masks are meant to be disposable. This disconnection between most of council, the mayor, City Manager and City Attorney permeates the majority of their decisions, where the public’s input, needs and expertise are disregarded and rarely funded. The City pretends we have given them a blank check and permission to turn a deaf ear. We need to refocus our budget on essential services dictated by the needs of working El Pasoans and their neighborhoods and recognize that the public pays a hefty prize for so-called public-private partnerships.
Under what conditions would you impose a COVID-19 related shut down of the city?
Since May 14, 2020, I wrote publicly about what we should be doing to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Much of what I recommended was based on my professional experience dealing with crises, such as the floods of 2006, the economic recession of 2009, and the mass shooting of August 3, 2019. During the pandemic, I have helped develop and implement plans related to the housing needs of homeowners and tenants both within Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc. and with non-profits and the City. I have been paying close attention to the way the City has failed to prioritize the spending of the CARES Act funding it received in April.
Nearly 6 months after the first so-called “shut down”, we have not managed to contain the spread of COVID19. I would push for a 30 to 45 day shutdown if the following conditions were met:
1) The provision of clear information to the public with enough time in advance and clearly outlined parameters of the shut down in English, Spanish and American Sign Language; with both videos and an easy to follow website and useful Amber Alerts.
2) The shut-down would be based on the Texas Medical Association’s list of low to high risk spaces and events, which can be found here. https://www.texmed.org/TexasMedicineDetail.aspx?id=53977. This means that parks and libraries would be reopened, with clear safety guidelines and support, and bars and enclosed restaurants would be shut down, with much more support for providing curbside service and PPE for their employees.
3) Enforcement should be obvious to the public. How many times do people have to contact 311 to report the same bar for violating social distancing rules before the business is shut down? Yet, City Council debated whether they and a total of about a dozen people should be conducting meetings in the Convention Center. They clearly understand the need for masks, social distancing and sanitizing spaces, yet they are still OK with enclosed private businesses operating as normal.
4) Testing and contract tracing would be easier, with shorter wait times by scheduling people in batches so someone with symptoms is not waiting in the heat for 1 to 2 hours to get tested and results are returned within 24 hours.
5) The public health team would be appropriately staffed, trained and held accountable for actual results.
6) We would not be spending any of the CARES Act funds on more vehicles and buildings, as the City is doing, when the vast majority of City owned buildings are currently empty and when people are still getting sick and dying. The funds should be used now to provide for PPE, testing and enforcement at places with clusters, including nursing homes, healthcare centers, such as the psychiatric center, the jails and immigration detention centers. We should be addressing the barriers for small businesses and renters who do not seem to be applying for assistance as expected.
7) I would work with the County, the school districts, EPCC, UTEP and our counterparts in Juarez to implement the shut-down.
How would you have responded to the killing of George Floyd if you were the mayor of Minneapolis? How will you improve community relations with law enforcement?
Police officers have three primary functions: 1) stop a crime in progress; 2) apprehend the suspect; 3) collect evidence including witness statements. There is no justification for ignoring these 3 primary functions of police officers when the suspect is one of their own. If I were the mayor of Minneapolis, I would have responded by treating the officers like any other suspect of a crime, particularly given the video recordings of one of them killing George Floyd over an alleged counterfeit $20 while the others did nothing. No one should confuse the role of a police officer. They are not the judge, jury and executioner.
On June 16, 2020, I presented my plans for transforming the police department, which are available at: veroformayor.com/blog. I have also made public comments to the city council about this issue.
In order to improve community relations with law enforcement, we must acknowledge that our current system of policing is an extremely expensive and often ineffective way of addressing societal challenges such as mental health, homelessness, domestic violence, child abuse, and animal cruelty. We also have to recognize that the City and the County have not prioritized white collar crime, which in a community that struggles financially, is a huge setback. The incongruencies of using excessive force on people who, for instance, simply need to be taken to a psychiatric center or are trying to stop the demolition of historic buildings, and ignoring the tens of thousands of dollars stolen from people by real estate scammers, contractors, employers, and others, impacts the community’s trust in the police. The City must recognize that having programs in name only is not enough. On August 28, 2020, someone called me because their spouse was having a mental health episode outside their home and EPPD had arrived after a neighbor called them. I recommended that they stay by the person’s side, not let the police take the person to jail, but rather to a psychiatric hospital and insist that a member of the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) be sent to the scene. EPPD responded that CIT was not available and the person was handcuffed until they calmed down. People with mental health challenges and their families deserve better and our police should not be wasting our time and resources on such incidents.
We must also demand that our police department be anti-racist. We cannot tolerate, much less fund the racial profiling of Black El Pasoans in the form of consent searches. We must also create a mechanism for the public to be able to complain about particular officers in a way that will have meaningful results.
The anniversary of August 3rd recently passed, how are you planning to protect the city from race-related violence?
We must be anti-racist. Many of our elected leaders boast about our borderland region and its “two countries, three states” but the reality is that the communities closest to our border are the most neglected and the most primed for gentrification with both public and private funds. Yes, Chihuahuita holds historic value, but so do Segundo Barrio, Duranguito, Lincoln Park, the Chamizal and Val Verde neighborhoods. We cannot allow our elected leaders to displace our oldest Mexican and Mexican American residents who embody our City’s history. We cannot give the Mexican American Cultural Center a room in the library instead of its stand-alone building with accreditations that can help local artists build their portfolio – especially if we are cutting costs to fund a sports arena. We cannot allow our elected leaders to remain silent as Latin American migrants, including children, are separated from their families and made to sleep on rocks underneath one of our bridges instead of being housed on the West Side of the City because the El Paso Chamber of Commerce finds they do not fit the profile of their community. We cannot invite the very people who implemented these horrific, inhumane and racist policies to honor the victims of a shooting motivated by racial hatred against our Latinx community. We cannot deny that the Juan de Onate statue is a symbol of oppression and racism. We cannot sit idly by as EPISD increases children’s exposure to air pollution with its bus hub and arbitrary school shutdowns in the Chamizal neighborhood which is 99.1% people of color. We cannot allow EPPD to racially profile Black El Pasoans. We must challenge these actions, among others, because they implicitly and explicitly fuel the ignorance that white supremacists use to justify their verbal, political and physical assaults against people of color.
What will your strategies be to combat the flu and COVID-19? How will you work with school districts to protect students, faculty, and staff?
The City has to implement the strategies I outlined above: inform, test and trace, enforce, protect and support. The City must sit down with the County, school districts, nonprofits (like the YWCA), EPCC and UTEP to see how we can share resources and minimize exposure to students, teachers, and staff. For parents and students who are not able to make the best use of virtual teaching, we should be able to share spaces to provide for social distancing; as well as WIFI (which is starting to be used); PPE and sanitation expenses; : as well as to use student teachers to help students in person while their teachers teach virtually due to their own vulnerabilities to COVID19.
How will you work to invigorate the local economy that has taken a hit amid the pandemic?
First, we must use the $119 million in CARES Act funding wisely and while adhering to the US Treasury’s guidelines. We must prioritize putting money into people’s rents and small business needs and not on the administrative fees of implementing such programs. We must reevaluate our tax incentive programs and use such funds to help small businesses and microenterprises rebound. We must apply for state and federal grants, even if they require matching funds, which the City refused to do at the beginning of the pandemic with HUD funding. We must re-evaluate the way our managerial city staff is funded and held accountable and have meaningful conversations with our city employees, some of whom opted to remain furloughed because they made more money with the stimulus unemployment funds than they did while on the city’s payroll. We must stop funding private-public vanity projects that are not accessible to the public for free, such as the baseball park, the Plaza Hotel, private parking garages, and the sports arena planned for Duranguito.
What makes you the best candidate? Why?
I am a fronteriza, a community lawyer, and an environmentalist. My great-grandparents, grandparents and mom raised me to think ahead and to think of others. I have devoted my entire adult life to fighting for social justice, crafting practical and holistic solutions, and training others to do the same. El Paso must redefine what it means to grow. We cannot sacrifice our environment, destroy our historic neighborhoods, and forget about our most vulnerable residents in the name of progress. Not only is it morally wrong, it is incredibly short-sighted and limits our economic development.
As a bilingual, fourth-generation commuter from Juarez to El Paso, I understand and value the relationship between our two cities. We must work together to ensure the dignity of our workers and recognize that El Pasoans need Juarenzes to consume their products and Juarenzes do the same. Low income El Pasoans still survive because they can get cheaper medical care, medicine, repairs on their cars, groceries, and even care for their pets in Juarez. We must advocate for shorter wait times that will not sacrifice border security. I would advocate for expanding the current SENTRI/Dedicated Commuter Lane program that was created to facilitate the commute of maquiladora management. If we can reduce the red tape on the U.S. side and the cost (and automate the payment) on the Mexican side, as well as create more SENTRI lanes, this would alleviate a lot of the traffic on the bridges and would facilitate cross-border commerce.
As a community lawyer, I understand that creating plans is not a win. Implementing them and changing them according to what my clients’ and staff need is the real test. I have learned to look for holistic solutions. You can’t create a plan and not think of the human consequences. Our high property taxes, for instance, impede people from earning equity when they sell their home or inheriting wealth when they pass away. Further, people are not able to pay off their mortgage more quickly or make necessary repairs to their homes and must still contend with subpar city services, including roads that need repaving and inadequate street lighting. We are pushing people into high-interest debt including reverse mortgages and tax loans. I have also filed suit against the City four times. Each time, I have been reminded that the City Attorney’s office lacks the institutional knowledge to handle many cases swiftly and in-house. Taxpayers end up paying huge salaries to local city attorneys (the top one is paid over $256,000 a year) and also paying private firms, many of which are out of town. As a community lawyer, I also know which local organizations to turn to so that we are not reinventing the wheel. The City Attorney’s most recent misunderstanding about the value of its eviction moratorium would have been cleared up quickly if they had reached out to local legal aid lawyers, for instance.
I am an environmentalist. I am committed to combating climate change, heat islands, and rising temperatures while creating green jobs and addressing environmental racism, particularly in neighborhoods like the Chamizal. Over 20 years ago, I learned to review the regional air monitoring network. A recent court ruling will likely affect the City’s attainment status for ozone and other pollutants and in turn, our State Implementation Plan. We must be prepared to honestly combat air pollution instead of blaming individual behavior and Juarez or pretending it does not exist. We must look at projects, such as the expansion of I-10 and increased parking garages downtown and question their value and their contribution to rising temperatures.