Mercedes city manager gets 2-year contract

MERCEDES — Mercedes City Manager Sergio Zavala earned some job security after the Mercedes City Commission approved a two-year employment contract Tuesday evening; however, not everyone on the commission was on board with the agreement.

Zavala’s contract was approved by a 3-2 vote of the commission, and came after the governing body spent two hours behind closed doors discussing the city manager’s performance evaluation. The city manager, who also serves as Mercedes’ planning director, has worked for the city as an at-will employee since 2017.

The vote fell along political lines, with the senior members of the commission — including Mayor Henry Hinojosa, and Commissioners Leo Villarreal and Cris De Leon Hernandez — voting for it, while Commissioners Leonel Benavidez and Jose Gomez voted against it.

For Gomez, the timing of the contract’s approval was cause for concern, while Benavidez criticized the narrow language of the meeting’s agenda in regard to the issue.

Benavidez voiced that concern both before and after the commission retired to executive session, where the officials were set to “deliberate the appointment, employment and duties of the City Manager…” according to the agenda’s executive session caption for item 19B.

Where Benavidez grew concerned, however, was in how the agenda was worded for when the commission returned to open session — there, Item 20B simply read, “Action to approve a contract of employment with the City Manager.”

“Here we only have one option, which is to give him a contract,” Benavidez said just before the start of the closed door session. “It doesn’t give us another option to discuss,” he said.

The commissioner added that he sought guidance from the Texas Municipal League regarding the disparate agenda item captions.

City Attorney Anthony Troiani responded by saying, “TML is not your attorney and I’m simply to provide advice to you and you all vote.”

After two hours behind closed doors, the mayor himself made the motion to approve a 2-year contract for Zavala, “subject to review and modifications.” Villarreal seconded the motion.

“Commissioner Gomez and myself voted against it because our charter says that we can offer the city manager a contract at the discretion of the commission,” Benavidez said after the meeting.

However, prior to Tuesday night’s meeting, the commission as a whole never met to deliberate the terms of a potential contract. Instead, they were presented with a pre-prepared contract in closed session.

“What’s the use of evaluating (the city manager) when they already have a contract for this guy?” Gomez said during a phone interview Wednesday.

“We’re all elected officials; we should have had an input on it,” he said.

Gomez said he asked both the mayor and city attorney where the contract had come from, who had directed its drafting, and who had approved the draft contract language. He never received a satisfactory answer. “I asked the mayor, ‘Who came up with this wording?’ and he said, ‘Well, it’s before us so we can discuss it,” Gomez said.

The contract’s two-year term has a one-year renewal option, according to Gomez.

The commissioner further criticized the timing of the contract approval. The terms of both the mayor and Commissioner Hernandez will come to an end in May — Hinojosa’s because he has served the three-term limit outlined in the city charter, and Hernandez because she chose not to run again.

“The mayor is going out, and yet he wants to give this man a 3-year contract with a whole bunch of other goodies? That, to me, is something not right,” Gomez said.

Over the last two years, the commission majority has come under heavy scrutiny from residents who have questioned the city’s response to natural disasters, as well as its financial health. Both Gomez and Benavidez ran campaigns last May that stressed they would bring accountability and transparency to the city.

The disagreements between the two factions have led to numerous power struggles during votes, with the minority urging that some decisions be delayed until after the May election, while the majority argue that the city can ill afford to put off important business.

Zavala declined to comment regarding his employment contract renewal after the meeting.

In a text message Wednesday evening, Hinojosa said he was reserving comment until the release of an official statement at a later date.