News Column

El Paso city manager finalist: David Almonte believes prior experience key

May 4, 2014

By Cindy Ramirez, El Paso Times, Texas

May 04--Deputy City Manager David Almonte, one of four city manager finalists, has spent more than 20 years -- mostly in budget and finance positions -- with the city.

"I have knowledge of the budget, knowledge of the community and knowledge of the needs and ins and outs of city government," said the 60-year-old Almonte. "With me, no transition time is needed. I'm ready to go if I'm given the honor and privilege."

His long tenure with the city could be an asset or a liability -- or a little bit of both.

"Some council members say we should promote within and open opportunities for those who are already here," city Rep. Emma Acosta said. "For me, I think it's the total picture and I'll need to wait to talk to them more before I make any decisions."

Carmen Arrieta-Candelaria, the city's chief financial officer, is the other local finalist chosen to move to the interview phase and possibly succeed City Manager Joyce Wilson. The other two finalists are Fort Worth Assistant City Manager Fernando Costa and former Irving, Texas, City Manager Tommy Gonzalez, who is now vice president of Sterling Construction Co. Inc.

Mayor Oscar Leeser has said that while he encouraged local professionals to apply for the job, they would not necessarily be given preference.

A native El Pasoan, Almonte is a graduate of Burges High School who earned bachelor's and master's degrees in business administration from the University of Texas at El Paso. He served in the U.S. Air Force for four years, then worked in the banking community before starting work with the city as a budget analyst in 1991.

He has served as director of the Office of Management and Budget, and was appointed deputy city manager in October 2010. In his current position, he oversees the police, fire and public health departments as well as environmental services an the municipal clerk's office.

"I started here as a junior level budget analyst and here I am interviewing for the top spot," said Almonte, who attributes his success to the support of his wife Martha and his three children, David Ray, Andrea and Amanda. "I'm proof people can work up."

Among his achievements, Almonte lists the employee wellness center that opened more than 10 years ago, as well as implementing best practices and standard operating procedures in the budget office that didn't exist prior to 1991.

Perhaps most notable is his role at the center of the often contentious police and fire union negotiations.

Under Almonte last year, the El Paso Municipal Police Officers Association filed a grievance following a miscalculation in police pay scales. That ended in the city having to give police more than $1.2 million in back pay and benefits.

At the time, the police association said it was about more than a miscalculation but about "management ignoring the elected union leadership and its police workforce."

City Rep. Ann Morgan Lilly said Almonte handled the negative feedback with the collective bargaining agreement well.

"I think he kept the focus on him and got the problem straightened out," she said. "I don't know if he was the one responsible, but he did take the responsibility of the entire organization structure."

She added: "It's a very tricky spot for him and the city. They want to take care of the officers but have to keep the budget in mind."

Almonte said he has a good relationship with the police union and is continuing negotiations for the coming fiscal year. It's a sensitive task of balancing police pay and benefits with fiscal conservatism.

"Certainly, they're very deserving and we have to be fair and competitive with their pay," Almonte said. "But we're also stewards of the taxpayers' dollars and we have the tough task of balancing both."

Almonte last year oversaw the recently adopted aggressive solicitation ordinance, which he said aimed to ensure the safety of solicitors who either panhandle or fundraise on public roadways. The ordinance was criticized by some who said they believed that in its original draft, it was a way to clear panhandlers out of Downtown as the city prepared to open the ballpark.

Almonte also oversaw the privatization of prisoner transport, processing and booking services. Under the program, a private high-security transport company rather than police officers takes prisoners from the command centers to the jails. That allows police officers to return to patrol duty sooner, he said.

"That has been a great program," Almonte said, complimenting the commanders of the Pebble Hills and Mission Valley Regional Command Centers where the program was first tried for their roles in its implementation.

With the help of police and other public safety leaders, Almonte also oversaw the implementation of P25 digital radio communication system used by various agencies. That was also not free of criticism as questions arose about its cost and timing just short of a federal deadline mandating its implementation.

With every accomplishment he lists, Almonte also cites department heads and their employees for their work.

Almonte said that's how he operates -- at the council's direction but from the ground up when it comes to making things happen.

He said he likes to ride with police and fire officials as well as garbage collectors to learn about their jobs.

"I want to experience what people are doing so that when they bring up issues or ideas I can better understand where they're coming from," he said.

Almonte said that if chosen as only the second city manager in El Paso history, he would expand that outreach to all departments and the public.

"We have to be transparent, involved, responsive and credible," he said. "I'd increase transparency in the city manager's office, not only with the council but with the public. We have to be responsive to council with credible, accurate data and provide options for them to make choices and give us direction."

City Rep. Cortney Niland praised Almonte for his leadership, particularly with the police and fire departments that have made El Paso one of the safest cities in the country.

"When it comes to health and public safety, we put a lot of emphasis on that," Niland said.

"One hurdle I do see is that he has no experience as a city manager and when we started this process we emphasized that we wanted an individual who had that sort of background," Niland added.

Niland hasn't ruled out any candidate, she said. She said she will go through the interview process with an open mind, but without any hurry.

"If we don't find the right fit after this interview process, then I won't have a problem going back and starting the search all over," Niland said.

The mayor and council appoint the city manager and set the salary and contract details with a majority vote. According to the City Charter, the city manager is to be appointed "solely on the basis of executive and administrative qualifications."

The finalists will all be in El Paso on Wednesday for a public meet-and-greet at the Plaza Theatre. They will be interviewed by the mayor and the city council members, a citizen advisory committee and the employee panel chairperson on Thursday

Cindy Ramirez may be reached at 546-6151.

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(c)2014 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas)

Visit the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas) at www.elpasotimes.com

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Source: El Paso Times (TX)


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