By Steve Ortega
El Paso City Representative Vivian Rojas currently sits on City Council as the first-term City Representative for District 7. Rojas first gained recognition in 2002 as the tenacious spokeswoman for the Invest in El Paso Coalition. The controversial coalition vigorously opposed the proposed tax increment finance districts in the Thomason Hospital area. Spurred by her activism, she ran for City Representative for District 7. In May of 2003, voters elected Rojas to City Council in a run-off election. On October 7, NPT contributor Steve Ortega sat down with Rojas to get her perspective on special interest influence in local government, the transition to a city manager form of government, and her relationship with the Mayor. She also offers insight concerning the new “chief litigator” position occupied by former City CAO Jim Martinez and she weighs in on Dan Power’s sudden resignation from City Council.
NPT: During the previous mayoral administration, you were very vocal in opposing the eminent domain power of the proposed tax increment finance (“TIF”) district for the Border Health Institute. Was this the driving factor in terms of your motivation in running for a seat on City Council?
REPRESENTATIVE ROJAS: First of all, I want to make it clear that I was not an opponent of the Border Health Institute. That is a misconception that was made by the previous administration, who was in disagreement with me about the TIFs. As I became more educated about the TIFs, I strongly opposed them because they were removing the right of the property owners to negotiate the sale (price) of their property. I also found out that the neighborhood were my grandmother lives (which is located in the then-proposed TIF district) was targeted for private sector business. That was an argument that I kept trying to make. If these people (the former administration) are interested in the property of these citizens who have lived there for over forty years then let them (the residents) negotiate so that way they can sell to the private sector.
NPT: So your problem with the TIF district is that the eminent domain power was not going to be used for a public use, but instead for private use?
REPRESENTATIVE ROJAS: Yes, it was being used as a very strong tool to remove the property rights from these property owners. It was being sold as a governmental need, but it was really a private sector initiative. I got involved by attending City Council meetings and lobbying Council members. I also sat up at night watching Council meetings so that I would be an informed advocate.
I really did this to be an advocate for my grandmother because she started hurting physically. She was becoming physically ill. It seems that the perception is that politicians don’t realize how their decisions truly impact people’s lives…sometimes in a negative way. Their decisions can cause people to get ill and stressed out such that they have health problems. People told me I really needed to do my homework. I remember when I was getting involved that I thought that Council members were uninformed and ill-prepared to deal with the issues.
NPT: Should eminent domain ever be used?
REPRESENTATIVE ROJAS: I am not a fan of eminent domain. I will tell you that there are situations, like with the El Paso Zoo expansion, they (the City of El Paso) negotiated the prices with the property owners. I was very happy with that because there was a give and take. They even helped to relocate these people. There were some owners who petitioned for higher prices and the government had to go back to the table and negotiate.
NPT: Right after you were elected, you were quoted by the El Paso Times as saying the following, “I learned to my dismay that public policy is often made with no input from the people involved and when citizens appear before City Council, they are often treated as a nuisance.” After fifteen months on Council, do you think things have changed?
REPRESENTATIVE ROJAS: I think the Mayor’s Neighborhoods First initiative has helped to empower neighborhoods. We’ve had decisions overturned. We’ve had Council members’ opinions and votes change because of the appearance of these neighborhood associations. I’ve learned that you need to get organized. There are times where neighborhood residents have come together to express their concerns and the Mayor may say, “Can you make this short?” or “Can we only have one spokesperson?” I don’t agree with that. We are supposed to listen to the community’s concerns. How else can we understand their problems if we don’t allow communication? Neighborhoods First has empowered neighborhoods, but these residents need to take the time to meet and organize formally.
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