Comedy of Errors: City Manager Appointment

firth_mistake_moreAttempting to circumvent processes usually results in errors. These errors can range from simple mistakes that can eventually rise all the way to criminality. The announcement of Tommy Gonzalez as a finalist in the search for El Paso’s next city manager has become embroiled in a comedy of errors bordering on legal chaos. Errors, especially in a city embroiled in public corruption controversies, are not simple omissions of processes but rather the result of institutionalized incompetence.

Errors and omissions are the normal course of certain processes however, the mistakes are usually dealt with and corrective action is implemented. In the latest case, the expected appointment of Tommy Gonzalez as the city’s new city manager is just another example of a litany of problems emanating from a city that takes legal direction from Sylvia Borunda Firth. In a city embroiled in many public corruption controversies the “errors” could actually be evidence of ongoing corruption.

Sylvia Borunda Firth was appointed the City Attorney by city council on December 20, 2011 for a five-year contract, although the original term was for three years. At the urging of Steve Ortega and Susie Byrd, Sylvia Borunda Firth’s initial contract was extended to five years and a clause was inserted that stated that if Borunda was terminated within the first three years, the city would be required to pay her the full five year salary her employment contract required.

Steve Ortega argued that the clause would “depoliticize” the city attorney appointments.

When city council voted to appoint Borunda Firth the city attorney, two members were being recalled; Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega and John Cook, the mayor, was under threat of a recall as well. The three were under criticism for their roles in passing the domestic partner benefits ordinance in 2009. Although enough signatures were verified for the recalls of Byrd and Ortega, ultimately the recall was invalidated by a Texas Court of Appeals.

Borunda Firth has been working at the city since at least 1990 as an Assistant City Attorney. Prior to her appointment as the city attorney, she was John Cook’s chief of staff.

Her appointment as city attorney was met with controversy because the recall organizers complained that the city attorney appointment was politically motivated by John Cook. Prior to the latest controversy, Sylvia Borunda Firth has also been leading the city in litigating against the release of the public documents held by Steve Ortega and requested by Stephanie Townsend Allala through an open records request.

In the most recent controversy, the city first issued a press release setting a media event for the announcement of the city’s next city manager, presumably Tommy Gonzalez. Hours later, the city issue a corrected press release stating that the media event was for announcing the “next steps” in the search for a city manager.

Question about whether city council allegedly violated the open meetings laws by making a decision about the appointment of Tommy Gonzalez have centered on word semantics. These are on the notion of whether “negotiating” a contract prior to voting on the actual appointment was an open meetings requirement for city council.

Sylvia Borunda Firth has been arguing that city council reached a “consensus” asking that the consulting firm, helping the city in the search for the new city manager, to “negotiate” a contract was not a “vote” by council thus it was not an open meeting item under the law.

Whether the open meetings law was violated or not will eventually be addressed in some fashion. What is important to note is the controversy surrounding the city’s second city manager. The controversy is a symptom of a dysfunctional system. The culprits of the dysfunction is the city leadership.

Although it is easy to blame the various controversies on Sylvia Borunda Firth the fact remains that her first loyalty is to the City of El Paso. Her primary function is to limit the city’s legal liability. She is not in a position to make policy, and rightly so.

Policy and city actions rests squarely on the leadership of the city.

The leadership of the city is represented by Oscar Leeser and it trickles down through city council on through to the city manager.

The majority of the city’s recent controversies started under the tutelage of John Cook. They have continued under Oscar Leeser’s administration. At what point does Oscar Leeser assume responsibility for the actions of his administration. Until what time does he get a pass for the incompetence at the city?

The question of whether the city may have violated open meetings laws is a symptom of a dysfunctional institution that is devoid of leadership. This is specially a dangerous situation because of the various public corruption cases that were recently exposed in the city.

Therefore the question becomes, is the incompetence centered on government transparency a result of true incompetence or is it the result of an attempt at covering up numerous corrupt practices that as of yet remain unidentified?

In other words, is the city truly that incompetent or is the comedy of errors a result of institutionalized corrupt practices that are trickling out?

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