Starr County entities defend payments to local attorney

The La Grulla city attorney has occupied that role for more than a decade, but after the Rio Grande City school district hired him, the payments he’s received from both entities has come under scrutiny.

Attorney Rene Montalvo took on the role of city attorney for La Grulla in 2002, and in October, he was hired as the new attorney for the school district board of trustees. Additionally, he serves as the attorney for the Starr County Appraisal District.

Last week, 229th District Attorney Omar Escobar told The Monitor he had been vocally critical of the city — which has a population of about 1,700, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau — and how much it was paying Montalvo for his legal services.

The city issued a statement in response to a public information request The Monitor submitted for documents that reflected how much it was paying Montalvo.

“His current flat monthly retainer for the City of La Grulla is $6,975,” the statement read, “and he is on call for City Administration and staff requests, questions and needs every day, 24 hours a day, including weekends.”

“This monthly retainer rate has been the same for at least the past 5 years and covers, among many other matters, any and all daily city business related activity, consultation and transactional work, including but not limited to water rights related contracts and transactions, third party-financial municipal assistance applications and financial audits, employment and work place related issues, municipal court prosecution duties/assistance, and all municipal insurance related matters including property, casualty and liability for the city.”

The statement added that his services had been renewed and sustained by the past five different La Grulla administrations.

The city also provided a redacted copy of Montalvo’s 1099-MISC form that reported a compensation of $83,700 for 2019.

Roma, a nearby city with a population of about 11,455, paid its city attorney, Martie Garcia Vela, about $31,257 in legal fees from June 2019 to Jan. 30, 2020.

Garcia Vela charges the city $175 per hour for services that include court appearances, depositions, drafting legal filings, motions or orders, electronic correspondence and “other duties noticed to the client,” according to a copy of the agreement provided by the city.

However, payment for Montalvo’s services were also questioned during last week’s Rio Grande City school board meeting.

School board Trustee Basilio “Bacho” Villarreal questioned why payments to Montalvo, who was hired by the school district Oct. 14, 2019, were not presented to the board for approval.

“Why isn’t it that the legal services have not been put in this board packet or in the preceding board packet?” Villarreal asked Diana Robles-Mendez, the district’s chief financial officer.

“The only thing that was presented or approved that night was to approve legal counsel, that’s it,” Villarreal said, referring to the October meeting. “Not about terms, not about anything else but legal counsel.”

Villarreal continued, “This board has not ratified or approved the monetary value of the contract, so I’m going to ask, how did you sign that contract?”

A recording of the October meeting indicates the board approved a motion to hire Montalvo as their new legal counsel with the condition that he meet with the board president, the superintendent and the CFO to finalize their agreement.

The school district agreed to pay Montalvo a flat monthly retainer of $12,500 per month.

Board President Eleazar Velasquez said Wednesday their previous attorney would charge them $18,000 per month.

“So we thought $12,500 was a reasonable salary,” Velasquez said, adding he didn’t think the board needed to take further action regarding Montalvo’s salary.

Villarreal, however, disagreed with that assessment.

“The board never ratified the contract,” Villarreal said, noting board policy requires payments over $5,000 to be approved by the board.

“There is an agreement that’s signed — how did they sign that?”  Villarreal asked.

“The whole board has to say, ‘We agree with whatever the agreement was,’” he said. “The board (members) are the only ones.”