El Paso candidate learned lesson with ‘off-the-cuff’ email comments

02/24/2014 6:15 PM

02/24/2014 6:16 PM

The first city manager of El Paso, Joyce Wilson over nine years successfully transitioned El Paso to a city manager form of government, brought life back to a failing public transportation system and helped draft fiscally sound budgets.

Despite those accomplishments, Wilson, 61, will probably be remembered for her time in El Paso for a series of emails in 2012 where she called residents opposed to tearing down city hall for a new minor league baseball park “crazies.”

Along with the other three finalists for Fort Worth city manager, Wilson interviews with city council members Tuesday.

In the 2012 emails, she said city council representatives who were against the ballpark project had the “beginnings of dementia.” The emails were released through an open records request and uploaded to a blog by an El Paso attorney.

“During that time the ballpark project was really controversial and there were a lot of emails going back and forth and the painful lesson from that is you have to be careful about making off-the-cuff comments and communicating casually via email about issues,” said Wilson about the emails.

She said it “certainly created a riff between myself and some on the council at that time.”

Wilson said the ballpark built for a new Triple-A baseball team, the El Paso Chihuahuas, is “the most significant project this community has ever had.”

Though Wilson’s contract with El Paso expires in September 2014, she submitted her resignation last October and said she would stay as city looks for a new city manager. Her base salary is $239,000 a year.

El Paso Times Editor Robert Moore said that while his paper editorially supported tearing down city hall to build the ballpark, Wilson’s emailed comments hurt the community.

“There was already some suspicion of city government, and so when you have these emails coming out where she was dismissing some of the citizen opponents as crazies, that really poisoned the well further with the community,” Moore said.

In her 2012 performance review, the mayor and council critiqued her for not providing the same information to all the council representatives and told her she needed to be more transparent, listen to the community and work on being less impatient.

Still, former Mayor John Cook said Wilson took the criticism provided by council and greatly improved.

“I would say that when this was brought up to her she owned up to it and addressed it, so it may have been a weakness, but it also identified one of her strengths,” said Cook.

Cook also praised her hard work on the budget, which he said she was able to keep balanced while working with the vision for the city by the council.

Moore also said Wilson “knows budgets thoroughly” and that she is a “competent manager.”

Cook said Wilson’s work to restore El Paso’s public transportation system by reinvesting in the fleet, applying for federal grants and looking to a private company to run the daily operations more efficiently.

“We went from being a transportation system that was failing and that nobody wanted to ride on unless they had to. ... And we turned that around in five years. In 2011 we we were awarded the best transit system for a city of our size, which was a major accomplishment,” said Cook.

Wilson said she was instrumental in technology reform in El Paso, launching new platforms, applications and software. She also worked with staff to develop an integrated data management system, engage with the community online and made open records requests available online to make freedom of information requests more accessible and efficient.

Wilson said it was a “very painful and major conversion” that was ultimately good for the city, and she feels she can lead Fort Worth through the process.

Cook, who voted for Wilson when he was on city council in 2004, he said he worked well with her as a council member and later as mayor.

“We didn’t always agree on things, but the bottom line was we were able to disagree agreeably and accomplish the goals we had set out to accomplish,” Cook said.

“She would do a good job for the city (Fort Worth). She is very organized, she understands the financial tools cities need, she understands the sensitivity of being financially constrained and she understands how to assist the elected officials in coming up with their vision for the city,” he said.

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