La Joya mayor settles board dispute with La Joya Housing Authority

A dispute over appointments to the La Joya Housing Authority’s board of commissioners was settled last week, clearing up who will remain on the board and which of the mayor’s appointments were invalid.

Jorge Bazan, John Peña, German Reyna and Sylvia Garces-Valdez will remain on the board of commissioners. Mayor Jose “Fito” Salinas must appoint someone to the fifth position, which by law is reserved for a tenant of the housing authority, within 21 days of the agreement reached last week between the mayor and the housing authority.

The settlement followed a lawsuit the housing authority filed against Salinas when the number of people he appointed to the board exceeded the positions available.

In the fall, Salinas appointed three new commissioners to the housing authority board: Bazan, Jose Louis “Puma” Rodriguez and Arnold Ochoa. He also reappointed Peña who had already been serving on the board.

However, Reyna and Garces-Valdez were also already on the board, bringing the total number of commissioners on the five-member board to six.

The housing authority then filed the restraining order and lawsuit against the mayor, Bazan, Rodriguez, Ochoa and Peña.

Part of that confusion stemmed from Salinas’ attempt to replace Garces-Valdez, alleging she had a conflict of interest because of her work as a public relations consultant with the city.

But attorneys for the housing authority disputed that, stating in their lawsuit that Garces-Valdez was hired as an independent contractor for the city and therefore no conflict existed.

Mayor Salinas could not immediately be reached for comment for this story.

A stipulation of the settlement agreement is that Salinas must rescind the removal notice he issued to Garces-Valdez and agree to not remove her on the allegation that her consulting agreement created an employer/employee arrangement between the city and Garces-Valdez.

Also part of the agreement reached last week, is that the appointment of Rodriguez to the board in October 2018 is void and it is acknowledged that Ochoa, appointed to the board in November 2018, voluntarily forfeited his position.

Other provisions are that the mayor must request all current commissioners to immediately complete conflict disclosure statements and all future appointees must file a conflict disclosure statement within seven days of their appointment.

The mayor is also prohibited from appointing any person to the board who has a conflict of interest in serving as a board commissioner and he agrees to not attempt to control or influence the LJHA board aside from his duties of appointing or removing commissioners as per state law.

The legal dispute over the board emerged just as the housing authority had concluded a legal battle over their executive director.

Frances Salinas, the mayor’s daughter, served as the interim executive director of the housing authority beginning in January 2017 but the board voted to terminate her in October 2018 alleging she misused funds and citing the conflict of interest because of her relationship to the mayor.

However, the meeting during which the board terminated her was voided because Frances Salinas had not posted public notice of the meeting 72 hours ahead of time as required by the Texas Open Meetings Act.

Before the board was set to meet again to terminate her, she filed a temporary restraining order and lawsuit against the board to prevent them from doing so.

After the temporary restraining order expired on Oct. 29, the board held a meeting that week on Nov. 1 and followed through on terminating Salinas.

On November 13, Judge Albert Garcia of county court-at-law no. 6 dismissed the lawsuit she filed against the board and ordered her to pay $20,000 in attorney’s fees.

That same day, however, City Attorney Kennedy Salinas sent a letter to the new Executive Director Cristi LaJeunesse, stating that the term of then-Board Chair Maricruz Sifuentes had expired, according to the original petition filed by the housing authority. However, she remained on the board pending a proper replacement.

The mayor also appointed Bazan to the board that day.

Then on Nov. 16, the city attorney also sent notice to Garces-Valdez on behalf of the mayor stating that she was in violation of the local government code because of her public relations position with the city that she held while also serving on the LJHA board that created an alleged conflict of interest. Her contract, however, stated she was an independent contractor for the city, according to the petition.

With finalization of the agreement between the housing authority and the mayor last week, Sifuentes, the board chair, stepped down and now the housing authority has what LaJeunesse called a “legal board.”

“I didn’t want to put the housing authority in a situation of having an illegal board for someone to come back and null and void any action that the board has taken,” said LaJeunesse, the executive director, who also said the board hadn’t held a meeting since November when this lawsuit was filed.

Tenants of the housing authority have until 5 p.m. Wednesday to report to the city manager to express interest in filling the vacancy on the board.

“I am very hopeful that the board is going to be appointed correctly and that we will be able to move forward and work on healing the housing authority,” LaJeunesse said. “I’m hoping that we can all put a positive foot forward for the low-income families of our property.”