Mercedes city manager keeps job as political tensions simmer

MERCEDES — Sergio Zavala will remain the city manager of Mercedes after an attempt to remove him from the city’s top administrative position failed during a meeting Tuesday evening.

The Mercedes City Commission discussed the city manager’s fate behind closed doors during a long, and at times tense, meeting here. The discussion came after Commissioners Jose Gomez and Leonel Benavidez co-sponsored the item on Tuesday’s agenda.

Dina Arévalo |
Mercedes resident Dalia Peña stands in silence during a city commission meeting to protest what she characterized as intimidation by the city commission.

Before retiring to executive session, Gomez asked if the commission could use a “recording machine” to record the closed-doors discussion. Mayor Henry Hinojosa denied the request, stating that such a request required approval by the commission and was not on the agenda for discussion.

The commission returned to the chamber after more than an hour in executive session. Gomez motioned to unappoint Zavala “for reasons made in executive session;” however, the motion died for lack of a second.

Commissioner Benavidez, who co-sponsored the agenda item, spoke before the motion failed. “Items were discussed. I also brought forth items, my own,” Benavidez said. “We addressed it to an extent. I know he (Zavala) agreed to provide more information as the charter says, and that’s what I’ll say,” he said.

The fate of Benavidez’s own seat on the dais has also been uncertain in recent weeks after a trio of complaints were brought against him by city employees, including Police Chief Dagoberto “Dago” Chavez.

On Monday, a court denied Benavidez’s request for an injunction to prevent the city from taking any action to censure or remove him from office. The court ruled that it could not make a decision about an action that had yet to even be discussed, much less carried out.

In his complaint filed with the court, Benavidez alleges his potential censure and removal are retaliatory political actions taken against him by the city — and specifically, by the mayor, who was named as a co-defendant in the suit.

Asked after Tuesday’s meeting if the attempt to remove Zavala was similarly politically motivated, Benavidez said no.

“That was addressed — on Sept. 3, before we even discussed agenda items, as far as complaints. It was completely new,” Benavidez said of concerns he had about the city manager’s job performance.

The commissioner spoke of concerns he had regarding a series of public information requests he had made with the city which he felt were not being answered accurately or in a timely manner. “It was before all of this,” Benavidez said of his concerns.

The city manager was not the only person whose continued employment with the city was uncertain going into Tuesday night’s meeting.

Longtime Municipal Judge Juan Alvarez was also unsure of his future with the city after the commission entertained requests for qualifications from several municipal judge candidates at a Sept. 17 meeting. Alvarez, who has served as the city’s municipal judge for more than a decade, was not one of the people to present his bona fides at that meeting; however, he was present Tuesday night.

As the commission began to discuss the appointment of a new judge, Benavidez spoke up, alleging that Mayor Hinojosa had told Alvarez the city was merely looking for an alternate judge. “No, no I didn’t do that,” Hinojosa said.

When Benavidez asked the mayor if he would yield the floor to Alvarez so the judge could offer his perspective, Hinojosa responded, “No, I won’t.”

Ultimately, after a failed motion to appoint Edinburg attorney Orlando Jimenez to the position, the commission unanimously passed a motion to continue Alvarez’s appointment.

Speaking after the meeting, Alvarez said there had been a miscommunication regarding the appointment of an alternate judge, and by the time the miscommunication had been cleared up, the deadline to submit his qualifications had lapsed.

Just over a week earlier, Alvarez had presided over the arraignment of four Mercedes residents who had been arrested in the minutes before and during the raucous Sept. 17 meeting. And it was he who made a note on the record that the arraignments had occurred after a statutory deadline.

On social media, some speculated that his attempted ouster from the city was a result of that court proceeding. However, as the mayor noted Tuesday night, the commission had discussed both the municipal judge and city prosecutor positions weeks earlier during fiscal budget workshops.

Though questions regarding the judge’s employment status didn’t arise because of the fallout from that Sept. 17 meeting, the meeting did spur several other conversations Tuesday night.

Firstly, Commissioner Gomez questioned whether the meeting had violated the Texas Open Meetings Act since dozens of residents had been prohibited from attending. After the fire chief had declared the legislative chamber to be filled to capacity, all three entrances to city hall had been blockaded by police officers at least 20 minutes before the meeting was set to begin.

“It’s a concern and a question that deserves an answer from legal,” Gomez said, who had left the chamber moments before the meeting began.

City Attorney Anthony Troiani responded, saying he had assumed Gomez left because he had felt uncomfortable. “I thought that there would be no reason for you to leave the meeting … that raises concerns that you left,” Troiani said.

When Gomez reiterated his concerns about the legality of the meeting, Troiani said the meeting had been legal. “There were no violations of the Open Meetings Act,” he said.

In addition, two of the residents who had been arrested at the Sept. 17 meeting addressed their arrests during open forum.

With her voice at times hitching and breaking, Velda Garcia lambasted the commission, city manager, city attorney, police chief and fire chief, saying she was disappointed and fearful after “the recent brutal violations of our human rights.”

Garcia called the arrests illegal and an “abuse of power, corruption, a political tactic to intimidate the most vulnerable.”

A few moments later, Dalia Peña approached the lectern. Peña’s arrest had come after she delivered a public comment critical of the police chief and calling him a drunk. On Tuesday, she stood at the lectern with her hands clasped behind her back and her legs visibly shaking.

After standing in silence for more than a minute, Peña spoke. “What you have just witnessed is what some of you would like to see happen when it comes to the voices and the citizens of Mercedes,” she said.

“Silence through your intimidation will not be tolerated. We will not — and I repeat, will not — be silenced. And we will not be deterred from the mission we have for a better Mercedes,” Peña said.