SANTA ROSA — Before a feisty crowd, three top officials stood to lose their jobs.
After tense debate last night, aldermen fired City Attorney Larry Warner, spared Police Chief Ronnie Hernandez’s job and left City Administrator Jared Hockema’s fate in limbo.
In this tiny farm town, the events leading up to the meeting began unfolding last June, when 19 pounds of marijuana went missing from the police department’s evidence locker.
Ever since, Hernandez’s job was on the line, even though the officer who seized the marijuana resigned before authorities could question him.
In October, aldermen reinstated Hernandez after firing him.
Then last month, the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office sent a letter announcing it would no longer accept cases in which Hernandez served as lead investigator because defense attorneys could question his failure to oversee the evidence locker.
John Shergold, the police chief’s attorney, argued last night that the letter from the DA’s office led aldermen to mull firing Hernandez again.
“My client is not under any suspicion at all,” Shergold told aldermen. “This is an innocent man. He has never been charged with a crime. There is not a reason to terminate Mr. Hernandez and you know it.”
In response, aldermen voted against firing Hernandez.
Aldermen also voted to designate Lt. Erik Heredia as custodian of the police department’s evidence locker.
Then it was Warner’s turn to try to stop the push to fire him after about a year on job.
“I think I’ve given you faithful service and I have a duty to do it,” Warner, a former state representative, told aldermen.
Warner said he was charging the city $100 an hour — about half the average rate for city attorneys in the area.
Since taking the job, he’s helped the city with lawsuits while negotiating with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Warner said.
“I inherited all these problems — every one of them,” Warner told aldermen. “Don’t change horses in the middle of the stream.”
But alderman voted to fire Warner, giving him 30 days to tend to pending legal work.
As Warner’s replacement, aldermen hired Gustavo Ruiz, Cameron County’s Precinct 4 commissioner.
Then the focus turned to Hockema, who works with Frontera Consultants.
From the board, Mayor Andres Contreras stood up for Hockema.
“He knows more about this city than all of us combined,” Contreras told aldermen. “He’s done much for the city. This would be a mistake for the city of Santa Rosa if this gentleman goes.”
After Contreras’ words, aldermen voted to postpone action on Hockema’s termination.
“That would leave the city without an administrator — with no one in charge,” Contreras said of firing Hockema.