EDITORIAL: Unhappy residents discover removing officials isn’t easy

You can’t always have your way.

Like Americans across the country who want our president removed from office, many Rio Grande Valley residents are expressing frustrations that it’s not so easy to remove local officials either.

Citizen petitions have been created asking for the removal of school board members in Brownsville and San Benito who have been accused of drunk driving. But like the impeachment of the president, removal of school trustees and other officials requires formal procedures that protect them from whimsical attacks and ensures that due process is followed.

The cases are similar. On July 5, a Harlingen police officer found San Benito Consolidated School District President Michael Vargas sleeping inside a car outside a Harlingen fast-food restaurant. Vargas was arrested and charged with DWI after he refused to submit to field sobriety tests.

On Sept. 2, a Brownsville police officer found Brownsville school board member Erasmo Castro asleep inside a car that was parked on the side of a city street. Castro also was charged with DWI.

Hundreds of residents have signed on to online petitions requesting the removal of each trustee, claiming the arrests make them poor examples for the students over whose fates they have influence.

While the petitions might gauge support for an official’s ouster, an arrest alone isn’t grounds for removal.

That requires that a petition be filed in district court, brought by a resident of the county in which the official serves. This allows the court to hear arguments for the removal and the official’s defense, and weigh the evidence. Intoxication is specifically cited in the law governing the process as valid cause for removal from office.

On Tuesday, that formal step was taken against both Vargas and Castro by residents in their respective districts.

The judge who receives each petition has the authority to suspend the targeted official during the proceedings, although that step seems a bit extreme for an offense such as intoxication. If the official is suspended, the judge can appoint a replacement for the duration of the proceedings.

Civil cases such as these can take longer to resolve, as courts normally give deference to criminal cases to respect defendants’ constitutional right to a speedy trial. However, the judges hearing these cases need not wait for the adjudication of the DWI cases; while they stem from the same incidents, they are separate issues.

That could be in the petitioners’ favor; both officials were charged with DWI, but neither was actually seen driving when the officers found them. For removal from office, however, intoxication alone can be sufficient cause. An official who pleads down to public intoxication might still lose his seat on the board.

Obviously, the process for removing the president is more complicated, and understandably so. But the local cases offer us a reminder that even at the local level, officials, no matter how unpopular they might be among segments of the community, have a right to defend themselves from possibly specious efforts to remove them from office.