Rio Grande City launches inquiry into public utilities director

The Rio Grande City public utilities director avoided termination Wednesday but will instead be the subject of an inquiry into his conduct.

The city commissioners unanimously voted to instruct City Attorney Calixtro Villarreal to conduct the inquiry into Steven E. Cruz III following a discussion during Wednesday’s city commissioners meeting that was held behind closed doors despite a request by Cruz’s attorney to hold the discussion publicly.

The agenda item on Cruz described a deliberation on his evaluation, duties, discipline, procedures, appointment, employment and/or termination and comes at a time when the city is attempting to launch a multimillion dollar project to overhaul their waste water treatment plant.

That agenda item was followed by an item to possibly appoint an interim public utilities director but since Cruz was not terminated, the commissioners did not take action on that.

Prior to the meeting, Cruz’s attorney, Juan Sonny Palacios Jr., wrote a letter to the city attorney Tuesday, arguing that only the city manager had the authority to terminate Cruz.

“As of this point, I have the utmost confidence that the City Commission (will) follow the City Charter under the advice of counsel,” Palacios wrote. “I trust that the City Commission will listen to the recommendation of the City Manager and, if the City Manager recommends termination of Mr. Steven Cruz, then the City Commission will, at that point, accept or reject that recommendation.”

He added, “Any action or interference from the City Commission in violation of Section 3.03 of the Home Rule Charter of Rio Grande City is actionable as such.”

The city’s home rule charter, approved by voters in November 2006, prohibits city commissioners from interfering in the appointment or removal of employees.

“Members of the Commission shall not direct or request the City Manager or any of his/her subordinates to appoint or remove from office or employment, or in manner take part in the appointment or removal of employees in the administrative service of the City, except for the purpose of inquiry,” the charter states.

“The Council and its members shall deal with administrative service solely through the City Manager and neither the Council nor any member thereof shall give orders to any subordinates of the City Manager, either publicly or privately.”

The charter also addresses the hiring and firing of city directors, specifically, in Section 3.06 of the document.

“At the head of each department there shall be a director who shall be appointed and who may be removed by the City Manager, subject to approval by the City Commission,” the charter states.

The reason behind the inquiry into Cruz remains unclear but it follows remarks he made to a local publication earlier this month.

In the aftermath of a city meeting during which at least one city commissioner questioned the process for evaluating potential engineers for the waste water project, Cruz issued a statement to El Tejano, a media outlet based in Rio Grande City

The statement, published on Sept. 9, he alleged theft and other illegal activity within the city in the past and accused one of the city commissioners of harassment and of trying to publicly humiliate him.

Since then, the city has made it clear that city employees must first receive approval before speaking to media.