El Paso

City Council appoints Karla Nieman as interim city attorney, replaces Borunda Firth

City Attorney Questions

EL PASO, Texas - El Paso City Council Wednesday voted 5-to-3 to appoint Karla Nieman as the interim city attorney.

Those who voted against Nieman's appointment were city representatives Alexandra Anello, Cissy Lizarraga and Henry Rivera. Nieman was an attorney with the City.

"I have a lot of responsibility and I'm looking forward to working with council, the City Manager and the rest of the departments," Nieman said. "It's not about ego for me. I care about El Paso. This is home for me. It's time to step up and do it."

Mayor Dee Margo said it came down to Nieman and Deputy City attorney Theresa Cullen. 

"We had two incredibly gifted and talented candidates. It was a very, very tough decision," Margo said. "This is an interim position and we hope to determine a permanent city attorney within the next 120 days."

Former city attorney Sylvia Borunda Firth originally announced her retirement back in April. The decision comes as the City of El Paso is in the middle of major litigation over the location of the proposed Downtown Multipurpose Performing Arts Center.

"Before practicing what I do for the city now, I have seven years of litigation experience. I've litigated cases with the city for many years. I've been involved in significant litigation for the city. It's not a problem," Nieman said.

A draft of a news release obtained by the ABC-7 I-Team dated April 26th, is titled "Sylvia Borunda Firth resigns as city attorney," but the word 'resigns' is then crossed out in the final version and replaced with 'retires.'

City Council has approved a separation agreement of more than $251,000.

ABC-7 obtained text messages, through the Public Information Act, between Mayor Dee Margo and two city representatives on April 26, the day the announcement was made.

ABC-7 spoke with representatives Michiel Noe and Cassandra Hernandez about the exchanges. Both confirmed the conversations they had with the mayor. One exchange shows the mayor wanted the public to believe the city attorney had retired.
On April 26, before city officials made the official announcement that city attorney Sylvia Borunda-Firth was retiring, the news had already leaked out.

ABC-7 called all city representatives trying to confirm the news.  Rep. Noe said he had not heard the news, but would make a call.

Instead, Noe texted the mayor asking "Did Sylvia quit?" The mayor responded "In process. No comment to media till agreement signed. We'll put out press."

On the same day Rep. Cassandra Hernandez sent the mayor a text which read "I think we should call a special meeting regarding this. I want to see any agreements related to what I am hearing and vote on the issue. Any action should come to council."

The mayor texted back "Agreement coincides with her contract and simply pays what she is contractually owed. Had outside counsel review. I'm signing today."

Later that night, the  mayor sent another text to Hernandez which read "Public perception will be retires. no disparagement."

ABC-7 asked Margo if he had the authority to sign and notarize Borunda Firth's separation agreement without getting council approval.

"Council voted on it, we had an agreement and council voted on it," Margo said.

When ABC-7 asked Margo again if he felt he had the authority to sign the agreement, even before some members of City Council knew of her departure Margo said: "that was to provide council with the ability to vote on it."

ABC-7 asked Margo a third time if he had the power to do that as mayor, Margo began to walk away. As he walked away, Margo responded: "city council has the authority."

On May 24, the ABC-7 I-Team obtained an email sent from City Attorney Sylvia Borunda Firth apologizing to council members about not informing them of a personal issue tied to an agenda item.

In the email, Borunda Firth apologized to City Council members for not informing them that her husband was representing a company that was seeking incentives for real estate. Borunda Firth's husband, attorney Victor Firth, and his partners were seeking incentive to renovate a vacant building on Montana Avenue.

The email said that she would excuse herself from the meeting when discussion started on the items. She alleged that she properly shielded herself from any involvement with the legal work related to the requests made by her husband and his partners.

It's unclear if this was the catalyst for the city attorney's departure, which still remains a mystery. Margo said it became clear that a change needed to be made after Borunda Firth's latest evaluation. The ABC-7 I-Team obtained her latest evaluation, where she received a 3-out-of-5 evaluation. The City praised her management skills but saw areas for improvement.

The evaluation stated: "[Borunda Firth] provides legal interpretation, but also adds her personal opinion, which appears to be leading the recommendations to council instead of the advice being factual and based on case law or legal opinions. "

Nieman officially starts her position on Monday. She was born in Chihuahua, graduated from UTEP with an English degree, and she went to law school at Indiana University

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