Harlingen debates term limits, manager’s contract

In this Mar. 23, 2021 file photo, City Manager Dan Serna addressed an audience that gathered for the Lon C. Hill Destination Park Ribbon Cutting Ceremony in Harlingen. (Maricela Rodriguez/Valley Morning Star)

HARLINGEN — Questions are popping up surrounding proposals that could impact City Hall.

After meeting with city commissioners behind closed doors earlier this week, Commissioners Frank Puente and Rene Perez are waiting for clarification into clauses set in City Manager Dan Serna’s contract.

Meanwhile, Perez believes his push for term limits on the mayor’s and commissioners’ positions currently lacks commission support.

During a Wednesday meeting, Puente and Perez requested they discuss in closed session questions regarding Serna’s contract and the possibility of setting term limits that could end up capping longtime Mayor Chris Boswell’s tenure.

Commissioners took no action on the matters.

“The purpose of going into executive session was to get information and feedback from the city attorney,” Puente said Thursday.

In other executive session matters, commissioners were expected to request the attorney “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 were 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 agenda didn’t call for action on the closed-door talks regarding the matters.

Contract clause raises questions

On Thursday, Puente said he wanted officials to clarify clauses in Serna’s contract.

“We wanted to get a better understanding of certain clauses in the contract,” he said. “There are some things that are still unclear to the average person.”

Since last year, Puente has questioned Serna’s contract, 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.

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.”

The contract, drafted under former City Attorney Rick Bilbie in November 2015, allows a three-member majority to fire Serna without cause, Boswell said earlier this week.

However, Puente questioned the reason the contract allows a three-member majority to fire Serna without good cause while requiring a four-member super-majority, along with the mayor’s consent, to fire him for good cause.

Weighing pros, cons behind term limits

Meanwhile, Puente said he’s awaiting information regarding Perez’s request to consider calling for a proposition on the May 2022 election ballot setting term limits on the mayor’s the commissioners’ positions.

“I don’t think we fully understand the pros and cons,” Puente said.

Puente said setting term limits tends to offer a bigger pool of candidates while boosting voter turnout.

“The pros of term limits are they give you more options and it brings out more voters,” he said.

However, term limits can also bar qualified candidates from seeking re-election.

“If he’s done a fantastic job and does what’s right, why would I want to change that and start over with someone who doesn’t have experience and knowledge?” Puente asked, referring to what he described as a hypothetical case.

Earlier this week, Puente and Perez questioned the length of Boswell’s tenure in office.

First elected mayor in 2007, Boswell is serving his fifth three-year term in office after serving as a commissioner from 1998 to 2007.

During his re-election campaigns, he’s overwhelmingly defeated opposing candidates.

Under the city’s current election guidelines, voters basically determine the mayor’s and commissioners’ terms in office, Puente said.

“In a sense, we do have term limits — it’s every three years,” he said. “Every three years, our constituents decide if your term is up by voting you in or out.”

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