Power struggle emerges on Mercedes Commission

MERCEDES — Discussion of several issues was halted before they could even begin thanks to the 3-to-2 passage of a rule that prevents the minority faction of the Mercedes City Commission from calling for their reconsideration.

The new policy applies specifically to items, actions or decisions that have been previously approved by the commission under its current makeup, or under past configurations.

The new rule was taken up for a vote near the top of Tuesday night’s regular meeting, which contained a litany of items added to the agenda by new Commissioners Leonel Benavidez and Jose Gomez. Many of those items involved concerns the two commissioners have raised regarding government transparency, fiscal decisions and legal fees, as well as drainage issues.

Before the commission could vote on whether to adopt the new rule, however, Gomez asked city attorney Anthony Troiani to explain the proposed measure to the 60 or so residents who had crowded into the meeting chamber.

“ What has been placed on the agenda is that there be some sort of consistency in your actions,” Troiani said of the commission’s decision-making as a whole.

“ A person who was on the prevailing side of the vote could bring an issue back, but if you were not on the prevailing side the vote you could not simply re-open something to, to discuss something that had failed to be withheld or stopped previously,” Troiani continued.

The city attorney went on to explain that adopting the new policy would prevent shifts in the makeup of the city commission from affecting decisions made by previous administrations in a way that could put the city at risk of litigation, such as if a new commission wanted to overturn a previously approved contract.

When Gomez tried to offer two examples of decisions he hoped the commission could revisit — the sale of 12 acres of land for $10, and an agreement with a property developer for the installation of sewer and water infrastructure — Troiani interrupted the commissioner.

“ You’re talking to them about it because that’s not my deal. You asked for a legal opinion,” Troiani said. “If you allow things to go the way you’re considering, there could be liability, there could be tax dollars at stake,” he said.

“ If we pass this, we won’t be able to discuss none of this,” Gomez said.

For Benavidez, who cosponsored seven items on Tuesday’s agenda, the timing of the new policy proposal was more than a coincidence. “Obviously, this is being done now. And it’s pretty clear as to what the effort is,” Benavidez said.

“ It seems to be tailored to what’s going on now,” he said, referring to the changes he and Gomez have been trying to implement since their recent induction into the commission.

However, Benavidez seemed undeterred by the coming vote on the issue. “I just want to, for the record, state that we can fix this later. We can correct this and make this right later. For the time being you guys can do what you will,” he said.

Commissioner Cristella “Cris” De Leon Hernandez spoke up, imploring Benavidez to heed the city attorney’s advice. “Mr. Benavidez, listen to legal and him indicating if there is any contracts that are already signed, payment was already made, they can come back and sue the city and that’s something I don’t think we need or want,” Hernandez said before making a motion to adopt the new policy.

Her motion was seconded by Commissioner Leo Villarreal. Both they and Mayor Henry Hinojosa voted to implement the new policy. Benavidez and Gomez voted against it.

Immediately after the vote, Hernandez attempted to make a motion to table the seven items which had been placed on the agenda by the two minority commissioners.

“ We’ll get to that when we get to that,” Hinojosa said.

When the time ultimately came to discuss those items, the mayor deferred to the city attorney.

“ Based on the approval of item 8, this issue would be moot unless the mayor wants to take this issue up,” Troiani said of a proposal to seek sponsors for the Texas Street Festival.

“ No, it’ll be moot,” the mayor said.

Speaking after the meeting, the city attorney said the idea to limit what items can be called for reconsideration by a governing body is not a new one. “If you look at the city of Brownsville, if you look at some of those cities in the Valley, they have issues where, if you’re on the winning side of a vote you can bring the issue back if you move to do so, OK?” Troiani said.

“ The idea is that you don’t open up for rehashing of issues over and over again by people who want to continually raise issues that may cause liability to the city,” he said.

Under current policy, an item can be added to a meeting agenda if it is sponsored by two commissioners, such as those added by Gomez and Benavidez. And that remains true under the new policy; however, Troiani downplayed the effect the new policy may have of stifling an elected official’s ability to bring issues up for discussion simply because they are in the voting minority.

The minority faction of the commission can still place items regarding previously-approved decisions on the agenda and those items can, in turn, be discussed if a member of the majority faction agrees to it, the city attorney said.

“ They would have to have somebody who voted for that issue to change their minds,” Troiani said.

“ I think it’s clear what was being done,” Benavidez said after the meeting.

“ The majority made a decision to do that and I understand their explanation that was provided, but it just feels like there’s more to it,” he said, adding that the decision didn’t surprise him.