HARLINGEN — City Hall might be in for a shake up.
The city commission’s new majority today plans to review City Manager Dan Serna’s contract while considering calling for term limits that could cap longtime Mayor Chris Boswell’s tenure in office.
During the meeting, Commissioners Frank Puente and Rene Perez are set to call for a review of Serna’s contract, which they believe appears to require the votes of four commissioners with the consent of the mayor to fire the city manager.
However, Boswell said the contract allows a three-member majority to fire the city manager but requires a four-member super-majority along with the mayor’s consent to fire the city manager for “good cause.”
In closed session, commissioners are expected to request City Attorney Ricardo Navarro “provide legal advice in connection with the city’s rights, duties, privileges and obligations regarding the employment agreement between City Manager Dan Serna and the city of Harlingen, Texas,” according to the meeting’s agenda.
Behind closed doors, commissioners are also expected to “deliberate the appointment, employment, duties and other terms and conditions of the employment agreement between City Manager Dan Serna and the city of Harlingen, Texas,” the agenda states.
The two executive session discussions don’t call for action.
Puente questions Serna’s contract
Since last year, Puente has questioned Serna’s contract, drafted under former City Attorney Rick Bilbie in November 2015, which includes a clause requiring four commissioners’ votes along with the mayor’s consent to fire Serna for “good cause” — instead of three commissioners’ simple majority.
“In order to terminate the city manager for good cause, four out of five commission members must vote to terminate and the mayor must also concur in the decision to terminate for good cause,” the contract states.
Before Serna took office, three commissioners’ votes had led to the firing of city managers, Puente said.
“My main concern is the clause that gives the mayor the final decision on the city manager’s position,” he said. “The contract requires a super-majority. Even with that, the contract still allows the mayor to revoke that decision. I think that’s unconstitutional. The mayor does not and should not have voting power. What I want to try to understand is why our attorneys would allow or accept this contract and why it was accepted when it’s unconstitutional and against the (City) Charter.”
While the City Charter doesn’t address the city manager’s termination, it states commissioners “shall appoint a city manager by a minimum of three affirmative votes.”
Meanwhile, Perez said he wants the commission’s three-member majority to have the authority to consider Serna’s termination if the issue should come up.
“We want to leave all our options open,” Perez, who narrowly defeated three-term Commissioner Victor Leal in the May 1 election, said. “We don’t want our hands tied for anything.”
Boswell says contract gives majority firing power
Boswell said the contract allows a three-member majority to fire Serna without good cause.
“I think it’s very clear that a majority of (three) commissioners can terminate the city manager under the contract,” he said, adding the contract requires the city pay Serna a year’s severance pay if he’s fired without good cause.
However, the contract requires four commissioners along with the mayor’s consent to fire Serna for good cause, he said.
“The issue is, how do you find good cause for a termination which would not (require) the city to pay severance,” he said. “In order to have good cause you need four commissioners and the mayor.”
According to the contract, “for good cause is defined as having been found to have committed misconduct after an investigation has been conducted. Misconduct is defined as violation of any criminal laws of a Class B (misdemeanor) or above.”
Puente calls for contract terms, written evaluation
Puente, who described the contract as “open-ended,” said he wants to revise the agreement to include employment terms.
Puente also said he wants to revise the contract to require a written evaluation of Serna’s job performance.
“I think it should be like every position,” he said. “I think it should be a yearly contract and based on an evaluation.”
Perez, Puente call for term limits
During the meeting, Perez and Puente are also expected to consider calling for a proposition in the May 2022 election setting term limits on the mayor’s and commissioners’ tenures.
“It’s something that for sometime has been an issue,” Puente said. “My main concern is term limits on the mayoral position. It’s an issue to where I think the voters should make that decision on whether they want term limits on the mayoral position.”
First elected mayor in 2007, Boswell is serving his fifth three-year term in office after serving as a commissioner between 1998 and 2007.
During his election campaigns, he’s overwhelmingly defeated opposing candidates.
“I know he’s had opposition,” Puente said. “Considering the opposition, I just feel — look at the options. Intimidation may be the reason (more candidates) might not run for the position.”
During the campaign leading up to the May 1 election, Perez made term limits an issue.
“It’s something I told my constituents I’d look into,” he said. “It’s not necessarily toward Chris Boswell. He’s in his fifth term. He’s been on the commission since ’98. He’s done a good job for the city and he’s a good guy. I think no one should be in power that long.”
If residents vote to set term limits, Boswell will be able to run again for office in next year’s election, Puente said.
“If the voters impose a three-term limit, Boswell could run for three terms,” Puente said, referring to a scenario in which voters set a three-term cap.
In Brownsville and McAllen, residents overwhelmingly voted to set term limits there in the May 1 election, Perez said.
“This is something popular that I want to bring to Harlingen,” he said. “I think term limits is extremely important. I want to give them the choice.”
Boswell: Voters decide term limits during elections
In response, Boswell noted residents have overwhelmingly re-elected him since he took office.
“You’ve got term limits every time you run in an election,” he said.
Boswell also noted Puente and Perez defeated incumbents to win their seats on the commission.
“It’s not out of the ordinary to defeat an incumbent,” he said.