Dear Media and Friends,
Yesterday, City Rep. Henry Rivera of District 7, who was recently under fire for calling Sito Negron a “f–king idiot” during public comment, sponsored agenda item 21.7, which sets in motion a process that aims to further restrict public access to “confidential information.”
As everyone knows, the City of El Paso often stonewalls when information is requested by the media or public, and the City Attorney routinely kicks open records requests to the Texas Attorney General, delaying access for weeks.
Since the El Paso Press Club is extremely weak and fails to advocate on behalf of journalists as press clubs do in other municipalities, the City gets away with its anti-transparent behavior.
Aaron Montes, who worked as a reporter for all three local newspapers and is now running to replace Henry Rivera as City Representative of District 7, was the only one to speak during public comment on this item. His remarks are a must-read for every El Pasoan:
“Mayor, City Council, thank you for allowing me to comment. I’ll just get to it.
I would add, privilege and the Attorney General’s opinion comes into play, only if the city seeks it. The public has called on this council and administration to be transparent. Information becomes public record after a vote.
If there’s one issue all El Pasoans agree on with local government, it is that transparency is not a priority.
Agenda item 21.7 once again prompts questions about what commitment to transparency our leaders have. When we should be uniting and working together, instead there is a focus on muzzling individuals in City Hall.
The sponsor of this item [Rep. Henry Rivera] wants to focus on an issue that does not promote transparency in our government and one that is over a year old. And that traces back to the vote that extended the city manager’s contract.
This is a prime example of petty politics.
He seems to believe, and a majority of you believe, that the public was harmed when information about the city manager’s renewed contract was given to the media.
What I can tell you is the public benefited from knowing that the City Council was about to agree to reimburse the manager for legal fees due to an ethics complaint that found he had violated city policy.
The contract, along with city attorney Karla Nieman’s contract, was quietly written up and surfaced in mid-December when many members of our public were preparing to enjoy the holidays in 2018.
His preliminary contract would put taxpayers on the hook for a $60,000 reimbursement for his legal fees, which stemmed from an ethics complaint filed against him in 2016. The city’s ethics commission had issued letters of notification for recklessly disregarding city policy for improvements in District 2. To add insult, a provision in the preliminary agreement considered offering up to $100,000 in reimbursement of legal expenses if some issue arose in the near future.
Those provisions were removed from the agreement after the media reported that, thanks to concerned individuals in City Hall. Unfortunately, this council, including the sponsor of this item, voted to reimburse the city manager for his expenses during a special meeting a few days later, despite members of the council being away for the holidays.
That vote was a slap in the face to the people of this city and to the integrity of this body as it knowingly disregarded the independent review by the ethics commission.
If you move forward with this item, you’re sending a strong message to the people of this city that you’re not concerned about upholding transparent practices but doubling down on keeping important commitments from public scrutiny.
That’s not something the public or I will forget.”
The City Council went on to approve item 21.7 on a 5-3 vote, with Reps. Svarzbein, Annello and Hernandez dissenting.
CITY MANAGER AND MAYOR COUNTER-ATTACK
Immediately afterwards, City Manager Gonzalez fired back with an angry rebuke, calling Mr. Montes a liar and declaring that his public comment was “abhorrent”.
True to form, Mayor Margo impugned Mr. Montes with a disgusting comment: “Mr. Montes is no longer in the media business for a number of reasons probably.” With this, he implied that Montes was fired from the El Paso Times or somehow expelled from his profession, which is false.
Margo could not resist taking a cheap jap at the journalist who had previously called him out for his numerous ethics infractions, including using his private computer to conduct City business.
When Montes replaces Rivera on City Council in January, fortunately for all of us, Margo will have lost his re-election bid and will no longer be in a position to treat citizen speakers with such arrogance and disdain.
Have a great day!