Mercedes officials approved the hiring of a new city attorney and voted to extend the city manager’s contract Tuesday night during a lengthy commission meeting that became contentious at several points.
The commission voted unanimously to approve the contract with Starr County native Martie Garcia-Vela as city attorney, but not before going behind closed doors to discuss what one commissioner described as “documentation that has surfaced.”
“Mr. Benavidez did contact me and he indicated that there was things he wanted to discuss. I thought since you wanted to bring someone on new and you don’t want to have issues that would be… necessarily unfounded, you might want to talk about those issues in executive and then decide if they have any merit,” said outgoing City Attorney Anthony Troiani, who attended the meeting by telephone.
It was unclear what concerns Place 2 Commissioner Leonel Benavidez wanted to discuss, and Garcia-Vela herself asked under what exception to the Texas Open Meetings Act she could participate in the closed door discussions.
The open meetings act lays out a narrow list of exceptions under which a governing body can carry out discussions outside of the public view. Some of those exceptions include privileged conversations with an attorney regarding litigation, real estate or economic development negotiations and personnel issues.
“Anthony, what chapter under the government code are we retiring executive? It is a question regarding me, personally. I’m not personnel. I am also not part of the economic development or deliberation regarding real property,” Garcia-Vela said.
The commission was still deliberating her employment contract, and as such, could retire to executive session to further discuss that, Troiani replied. If the commission had questions, they could call her in to answer, then ask her to leave as they deliberated her answers, he said.
Ultimately, the commission decided to go behind closed doors to discuss the issue. When they emerged, they voted unanimously to hire Garcia-Vela.
Under the terms of her contract, Garcia-Vela will work 50 hours per month at a rate of $200 an hour, for a total retainer of $10,000 per month.
“The last position I had, I was billing at $325 an hour. Obviously, my work here would be different, but I’m factoring about 10 hours a month in meeting time and then that would be approximately 10 hours every week for other legal duties,” Garcia-Vela said.
She will also notify the city when she is nearing her 50-hour threshold each month. Any hours worked after that will need commission approval.
Garcia-Vela also instituted a clause into her contract that will limit how much communication she has with city leaders.
Rather than have commissioners call her individually to seek her legal opinion, Garcia-Vela has asked that questions or concerns be routed through City Manager Alberto Perez, who will then relay them to her. Perez will then relay her answer back to the commission.
“If one particular commissioner calls all the time, he might be eating all the time that she’s allocated for that week. So the concern is management of time and making sure that we’re addressing your questions in a proper way, in a timely way and that everybody else also hears about it,” the city manager said in response to a question from Place 1 Commissioner Jacob Howell.
Not long after the commission returned from executive session to approve Garcia-Vela’s hiring, they went behind closed doors again — this time to discuss the city manager.
They remained in executive session for over 90 minutes before emerging to take a vote on the future of the city manager’s employment. But, as with Garcia-Vela, the concerns the commission sought to address were shrouded in mystery once they were back before the public.
And also as with Garcia-Vela, the concerns seemed to stem from Benavidez. Both he and Place 3 Commissioner Jose Gomez had sponsored the executive session agenda item about the city manager.
“We brought up the issues that we have encountered, you know, also with complaints from residents and so those were brought up to the city manager,” Benavidez said.
“What I gathered is that there was a, in a sense, let’s avoid this, right, let’s be more careful and cautious in how we deal not only commission business, but also with residents in not wanting to show any sort of disrespect or anything like that,” Benavidez continued without mentioning any specifics.
The commissioner continued to speak in cloaked terms for several minutes regarding the city manager before implying that the commission formally reprimand Perez.
“I would look at this if anything as a stern warning as to what we want to avoid and what we want to improve on,” Benavidez said.
As he continued to talk, Mayor Oscar Montoya interrupted, saying, “Is there a motion in there somewhere?”
It was at that point that Benavidez motioned to extend Perez’s six-month probationary period.
“I think that’s suitable. We’ve already warned him. We talked about it in executive, we warned him the last time he disrespected a commission member, multiple commission members. And this happened now with residents,” Benavidez said.
The mayor, who had become visibly frustrated with Benavidez several times throughout the five-plus-hours long meeting, rebutted the commissioner’s assertions.
“So, I think, again, for clarification, this is my opinion, is that you made a bunch of allegations here that were not founded,” Montoya said.
“That’s a complete lie,” Benavidez interjected as the mayor spoke over him.
“I’m talking right now, Mr. Benavidez,” Montoya said.
“It’s one thing to give an opinion and it’s another thing to state a fact, and if you don’t have any proof, that doesn’t make it a fact,” the mayor added, continuing to talk over Benavidez as he tried to respond.
The mayor called for a second to Benavidez’s motion, but after a few seconds of silence, called the motion dead.
Instead, Howell spoke up to offer praise for the job Perez has done since his hiring.
“I know the probation period is up and we did an evaluation. There was a lot of positives in there, as well. Sure, there were some concerns in there. I think those concerns will be met and improved, most definitely, yes sir,” Howell said.
The commission approved Perez’s hiring on April 6. He was set to be under probation for six months. Thus far, he has served Mercedes for only four months.
Nonetheless, Howell praised Perez for uncovering issues with the city’s lift stations, rediscovering grant funds that had been awarded to the city by Texas Parks and Wildlife, and his ongoing negotiations in an unnamed economic development project.
“We can pick with a magnifying glass and this and that. There might’ve been some misunderstandings. We will address it… I haven’t seen nothing but the man stick his neck out for this community,” Howell said.
“I would like to make an extension for two years for our city manager,” he added a moment later.
Immediately, Benavidez tried to halt the motion by appealing to the city attorney over whether a vote on a contract extension had been properly noticed in the meeting agenda.
Troiani responded it had, since the agenda read, “to deliberate the appointment, employment, evaluation, reassignment, duties, discipline, or dismissal of City Manager…”
But Benavidez argued that the item had only been intended to address complaints. The latter half of the agenda item caption read, “or (2) to hear a complaint or charge against the City Manager,” which is the sole reason he and Gomez had placed the item on the agenda, Benavidez said.
Nonetheless, the vote continued.
The mayor, Howell and Martinez voted to extend Perez’s contract. Commissioners Benavidez and Gomez voted against it.
“It was on the agenda for complaints,” Benavidez said as the mayor moved on.