Former Mercedes development board director responds to ouster

In this May 5, 2021 file photo, Mercedes City Hall can be seen in Mercedes. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Two weeks after the Mercedes City Commission unanimously voted to remove him from the Development Corporation of Mercedes board of directors, David Garza has responded to allegations that he behaved unprofessionally — and, according to the DCM executive director, potentially criminally.

Garza spoke up during the public forum portion of last Tuesday’s meeting, criticizing the city for taking the allegations against him at face value without ever giving him a chance to respond or defend himself.

But Garza wasn’t alone in his criticism. Shortly after delivering his remarks, Place 2 Commissioner Leonel Benavidez descended from the dais to deliver a public comment of his own, alleging the city has been dragging its feet in making public information and agenda-related documentation available to commissioners.

Garza, who has previously served as a city commissioner and is often a fixture at city meetings, was notably absent June 1, when the commission unanimously voted to oust him from the DCM board after Executive Director Melissa Ramirez presented a list of allegations against Garza, alleging unprofessionalism, sexism, an ill temper and even criminal activity.

But, just a few words into his comments, Garza was interrupted by Mercedes City Attorney Anthony Troiani.

“Mr. Garza … it’s my understanding that you have posted that this is a matter that’s going to court, and as such, in anticipation of litigation, the city’s not going to allow you to comment on these issues or ask for any response from the city,” Troiani said.

The city attorney referred to a June 13 Facebook post Garza made reiterating his concerns that the allegations against him and his subsequent ouster were moves meant to silence him from speaking about litigation Mercedes currently has pending against several of its former officials.

“For the citizens that know me, when this case gets to court, then we will know who is telling the truth,” Garza wrote.

Troiani asserted that that sentence effectively put Mercedes on notice that Garza intends to sue.

“Only if the notice is done by an attorney,” Garza said, before pivoting to make his comment more generally about “professionalism.”

“If you’re going to remove somebody, no matter what board it is, there is always a professional way of doing it. There’s always guidelines,” Garza said. “It’s called professionalism.”

But it wasn’t long before Garza again brought up the lawsuit which he believes underpins his removal from the DCM board.

“Since people don’t want me on this board and it’s quite obvious because it’s the Arriola case, when they sold 13 acres for $10 and they’re still trying to get that lawsuit to go away, which it’s not going to go away,” Garza said.

“People are hopefully going to jail,” he said.

The lawsuit of which he spoke is one of three Mercedes filed last spring against former city attorney Juan R. Molina, former city manager Richard Garcia and Dr. Roland Arriola, along with several other defendants.

The city alleges the trio defrauded the city during a 2012 development project, which involved selling just over 12 acres of city-owned land for $10 to a nonprofit organization headed by Arriola for the purpose of opening an institute of higher learning.

The city had initially purchased the land from the Mercedes Housing Authority for nearly a million dollars, $500,000 of which came via a federal grant.

In the year since the city filed the lawsuits, the State Bar of Texas has issued a public sanction against Molina, handing down a three-year probated suspension of his law license.

And last month, The Monitor confirmed that the FBI has launched an investigation of the city.

Garza believes there are more funds related to the land deal that the city can attempt to recover. He said he tried to bring up the issue at the DCM board, but that his proposals were repeatedly left off meeting agendas.

After months of the issue not being placed on the agenda, he called for the DCM board to discuss Ramirez’s continued employment as the DCM’s executive director.

It’s then that Ramirez brought forth her allegations against him — some 19 different complaints stretching from January 2020 to May.

Garza said he had never been made aware of any complaints against him until he was removed from the DCM board.

Commissioner Benavidez said he hadn’t heard of any complaints prior to the June 1 meeting, either. However, when asked why he, like the commission’s other four members, all voted to remove Garza from the DCM board, Benavidez said because the commission had faith in the veracity of Ramirez’s allegations.

“We did have the testimony of the EDC director and that was partially why we all voted because we expressed confidence in what she’s reporting to us and also considering that legal reviews the agendas, or he’s supposed to,” Benavidez said Wednesday.

But the commissioner noted that — other than Ramirez’s four-page printout — the commission had not been presented with any other documentation to corroborate Ramirez’s complaints against Garza.

As a result, the commissioner had hoped to bring the issue back to the commission for more thorough consideration. He and Place 3 Commissioner Jose Gomez requested an item be placed on last week’s agenda to rescind and reconsider Garza’s removal.

“In an effort to avoid liability and to provide due process — even though we don’t have to because he’s not an employee — it’s just a fair thing to do,” Benavidez said.

But that item never made it to the agenda — at least not in the form Benavidez and Gomez had hoped.

Benavidez claims the wording of his and Gomez’s item had been changed late on June 11 — the last day for commissioners to submit agenda item proposals — even though the pair had submitted their request days in advance.

When the two commissioners noticed the change, which now read, “Discussion with legal counsel regarding the basis to remove DCM Board Member,” and tried to have it changed back to allow the commission to consider rescinding Garza’s removal, they were unable to, Benavidez said.

It’s not the first time his or Gomez’s agenda requests have been altered without their consent, Benavidez said.

“That is a concern and this has happened multiple times in the last month, month-and-a-half. And I reported that to the district attorney and forwarding that to the attorney general, as well,” Benavidez said.

City Manager Albert Perez declined to offer much comment on the rewording of the commissioners’ proposed agenda item, citing the potential litigation against the city.

“The only thing I can tell you, whatever they request, we pass it on to the (city) attorneys and then it comes back. They’re the ones that modify whatever wording and we take their advice,” Perez said.


darevalo@mvtcnews.com