City commissions are created to address the needs of their residents. They help build and maintain infrastructure, provide basic community services and help settle disputes.
To that end, all elements of city government are expected to be respectful and responsive to all residents; otherwise those residents are given the right to replace them at the next election.
The residents are expected to provide the same respect to officials upon whom they depend to provide those services.
So it’s unfortunate when disputes pit residents against their officials.
Such is the case in Mercedes, where unrest preceding Tuesday’s City Commission meeting ended with some residents being taken away in handcuffs.
Tension in the chambers was aggravated by the overflow crowd that prevented some people from entering, and some residents’ inaccurate assertions that keeping people out to meet fire code limits violates the Texas Open Meetings Act.
The act does not give government bodies the authority to change the location of a meeting without providing 72 hours public notice, unless a larger chamber is available in the same building. Some recent amendments do make allowances for natural disasters, but not for large crowds.
The detained residents were among a group that voiced criticism of officials including Mercedes’ police chief Dagoberto Chavez, who is mired in a feud with City Commissioner Leonel Benavidez. Video taken in the chambers shows the critics were returning to their seats after being asked to do so, when several police officers approached them and tried to forcibly remove them from the chambers. When they resisted, they were arrested.
Benavidez faces two separate complaints, for allegedly insulting the chief and Interim City Secretary Joselynn Castillo. Benavidez also has been accused of improperly asking police for investigative information. Two agenda items seeking Benavidez’s censure and removal from the commission were pulled Tuesday after he secured a temporary restraining order preventing such action.
No one should face arrest for simply criticizing a public official. Nor should disrespect by an official warrant such extreme measures as expulsion. The events suggest deeper political feuds are at play, which we’ve seen play out far too often in commissions, school boards and other bodies all across the Rio Grande Valley.
Disputes arise in the course of everyday life. Our founders believed that dissent was the driving force toward progress, as it promotes the open discussion of divergent ideas and helps a community determine the best solutions to their problems.
Open debate sometimes can become heated, as people defend their positions. However, it should not devolve into petty sniping, insults or the improper use of authority or ordinance, whether by officials or the public, to punish political opponents.
We trust that clear heads can resolve the current differences in Mercedes without extreme and unnecessary measures. And we hope observers elsewhere recognize that exercising our right to debate issues requires that we show the same respect for others that we demand from them.