Rio Grande City school board terminates attorney

RIO GRANDE CITY — The school board here swiftly terminated its attorney Monday after being the focus of a raucous board meeting last week.

In a 4 to 3 vote, Baltazar Salazar, who was hired for the job over the summer, was ousted as the school board’s attorney during a special board meeting held Monday afternoon.

Salazar’s termination was previously taken up during a board meeting last week but only board trustee Daria Babineaux voted in favor of it following much arguing among members of the board, Salazar and Superintendent Vilma Garza.

This time, trustee Leticia O. Lopez made the motion to terminate, which was seconded by board President Eleazar Velasquez.

Babineaux and board trustee Daniel J. Garcia joined them in voting for Salazar’s termination while trustees Basilio “Bacho” Villarreal, Eduardo “Eddie” Ramirez and Noe Castillo voted against it.

Before the motion officially passed, Villarreal questioned the other members’ motives for terminating Salazar.

“I was leery of him at the beginning but I’ve come to understand that he has called it both ways,” Villarreal said of the attorney. “He has stopped me when I wanted to talk about executive session items, he’s called it the way it is.”

Salazar was hired by the board over the summer when the animosity between the two political factions on the school board prevented them from holding a meeting at all.

The dispute reached the courts, with trustees Villarreal and Ramirez — who was board president at the time — filing a temporary restraining order to keep the other trustees from meeting.

The board attorney at the time, Ruben Peña, represented Villarreal and Ramirez while Salazar was hired to represent the opposing four.

When those four board members were finally able to hold a board meeting, they fired Peña and replaced him with Salazar.

Villarreal questioned why the board members were concerned with the cost of Salazar’s services, pointing to the hiring of other attorneys and other expenses the district had accrued.

“The problem we have today is that we want to create motivation for our kids, for our teachers but, you know what, we have an RGCCISD circus here,” Villarreal said. “We have a circus here and until we’re willing to correct that, it ain’t going to happen.”

Villarreal added: “To all the fans, to all the employees, and to all the parents, I only have one last thing to say — winter’s coming and it’s coming quickly.”

Salazar was also given the opportunity to speak and began by thanking the board for the opportunity.

“I want the taxpayers to know, the residents of Rio Grande City, regardless of whether they keep me or not, I want you to know that my goals for this school district were the same — stability, maturity, financial transparency,” Salazar said. “I do not work for individual board members, I don’t work for majorities, I don’t work for minorities, I don’t work for the superintendent — I work for the whole board.”

He added that as an officer of the court, he had a responsibility to report illegal activity.

“And I will guarantee you that that has been done,” Salazar said.

When Villarreal asked what he meant by that, Baltazar declined to clarify.

“As an officer of the court, there’s some things that I have to keep confidential but it has been done sir,” he said.

After Salazar’s hiring became official, the board approved the hiring of Rene P. Montalvo as the new board attorney — also by a 4 to 3 vote.

Montalvo, the city attorney for La Grulla, is also the attorney for the Starr County Appraisal District — an issue that Villarreal raised.

“We deal with the appraisal district in many forms and facets. How can we have an attorney that basically represents the appraisal district and represents the school at the same time when we do, at times, have things that are intertwined?” Villarreal asked. “In other words, is he going to be the attorney for the school or is he going to be the attorney for the appraisal district.”

Montalvo assured that his role with the appraisal district did not constitute a conflict of interest.

Villarreal understood that his employment with both entities was not illegal but pushed on what would happen if the relationship between the two became adversarial.

Trustee Garcia pointed out that at one point the school district employed Starr County Attorney Victor Canales as their attorney.

“(He) represented Starr County and represented the district at the same time and there were no issues with that.”

Garcia later said that Montalvo’s legal fees were still to be negotiated. He added that while Salazar had submitted invoices billing the district $250 per hour, his rates had not officially been agreed upon.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Velasquez — the board president — addressed the public feuding among the board during the previous board meeting, agreeing with Villarreal’s previous comment.

“We did have a circus last board meeting and I think we have embarrassed RGCCISD to the max,” Velasquez said. “Hopefully we can start working together, every single one of us.”

bereniceg@themonitor.com