Mercedes ousts development board director over unprofessionalism

Mercedes City Hall is seen in this May 5, 2021 file photo. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

MERCEDES — The Mercedes City Commission unanimously ousted a board member from the Development Corporation of Mercedes (DCM) in response to a laundry list of allegations of unprofessionalism against him.

But David Garza, the now-former DCM board director and one-time city commissioner, says his removal was a politically motivated ploy meant to silence his criticism of the city’s lack of transparency, especially in regard to ongoing litigation against former city officials.

“It’s very simple. You’re asking the wrong question,” Garza said when reached for comment after the commission removed him from the DCM.

“The question is, why is she going after me? It’s very simple. I have items on the (DCM) agenda that she never put on the agenda. And they were supposed to be for executive session,” Garza said, referring to DCM Executive Director Melissa Ramirez.

Garza was one of several former city officials, including former Commissioner Cristela “Cris” Deleon Hernandez, who helped restart the corporation to boost economic development about 20 years ago.

Appointed to the DCM board in January of last year, Garza said he had pledged to the commission to help correct any problems he might find in the corporation.

For months, he tried to get the DCM board to discuss an issue related to a 2012 project to open an institute of higher learning in Mercedes. That project involved selling a city-owned piece of land to a nonprofit organization led by Dr. Roland Arriola, who was slated to open the Texas Polytechnic Institute.

That project has since become the underpinning of a series of lawsuits Mercedes has filed against several defendants, including Arriola, former Mercedes City Attorney Juan R. Molina, and former City Manager Richard Garcia.

But despite gathering the support of a second board director whose signature Garza needed to place the item on the agenda, the topic was never added, he said.

After several fruitless attempts, Garza asked for another agenda item to be placed on the agenda instead — one that would have the DCM board evaluate the roles and responsibilities of its executive director, with the potential of removing her from the position.

And that, Garza said, is when the complaints against him surfaced.

The complaints were brought forth by Ramirez, the DCM’s executive director. City Manager Alberto Perez deemed them serious enough to bring before the city commission.

“I received documentation on some … related to a board member. Most recently, Commissioner Benavidez and I were also witness to some activity in one of the meetings that did not add up to being professional and conducive to being in a group setting,” Perez explained during a city commission meeting Tuesday night.

“You see in the documentation that was provided by our employee, she has some specifics,” he said.

Those “specifics” include accusations that Garza threw a phone at a DCM staffer, text messaged staffers late at night, called Ramirez a “glorified secretary,” and was frequently ill-tempered.

The accusations also include insinuations that Garza behaved criminally by taking meetings with potential business developers, and by allegedly recording confidential portions of public meetings.

Ramirez presented her allegations in a dated list four pages long, stretching from as far back as Jan. 23, 2020, to May 26 of this year.

“Has this been brought to his attention in the past or is this something that was kind of built up and you guys are gonna take one action on it?” asked Place 2 Commissioner Leonel Benavidez as the commission took up the discussion Tuesday night.

“Has he been addressed, like, in the form of a write-up or (the) attorney sending him a letter?” Benavidez asked.

“We have publicly addressed him during meetings and we have privately addressed him during phone calls,” Ramirez responded.

“The (DCM) board doesn’t have any authority over him. Neither does the attorney,” she said.

But that was news to Garza, who said he had never been made aware of any issues over the last year-and-a-half. Nor was he notified that he would be the topic of discussion at Tuesday’s meeting.

“Everybody has to have due process, whether you like them or not. You just can’t kick them out and then only have one side of the story,” Garza said.

“Where am I supposed to come in and counteract this, or explain this or deny it or agree to it? That was never done. … The city manager never once contacted me, nor did the EDC board contact me to tell me, ‘Hey, we’ve got you on the agenda,’” he said.

Both Garza and Ramirez lobbed serious allegations against each other.

“She lied on a lot of this stuff and that’s another one. I mean, she just made things up,” Garza said of Ramirez.

Next to each allegation listed in her memo against Garza, Ramirez included a comment.

In those comments, she accuses him several times of libel and spreading false information, such as in an incident that allegedly occurred on March 28.

“On social media, David Garza stated I was in on the ‘scam for selling all those acres for $10’ to TVCF,” Ramirez wrote, referring to the property that is currently at the center of the city’s litigation against its own former officials.

“The real estate transaction was in 2011. I was not working at the EDC in 2011. False Information. Libel,” reads Ramirez’s accompanying comment.

In other comments, she accuses Garza of sexism.

“David is only comfortable yelling at women,” Ramirez wrote as comments to two other allegations during which she says he became irate.

“This is deeming. I 37 year old, educated woman (sic)” she wrote in another comment, alleging Garza had referred to her as a “girl.”

For his part, Garza denies the allegations, and points to a lack of complaints against him prior to this month.

He particularly denies the two accusations Ramirez made that allege he broke the law — recording a privileged portion of a public meeting, and self-dealing with a commercial developer.

“No, that’s illegal,” Garza said with emphasis when asked directly if he had recorded an executive session portion of a DCM meeting.

Under the Texas Open Meetings Act, governing bodies may discuss certain items out of the public view. The discussions may be recorded via a written certified agenda, or an audio recording, but that recording may not be made public, except under rare exception by court order.

It is a violation of the act to release that recording to the public.

A member of a governing body may, however, access such executive session recordings or certified agendas of current and past meetings while they remain active members of that governing body.

As for the meeting that Ramirez accused Garza of participating in for self-dealing, Garza did not deny a meeting took place, but roundly denied it involved self-dealing.

“On social media, David Garza admitted to meeting with a developer at a chicken place on (FM) 1015 with two other commissioners to make a deal with a developer. This was an illegal meeting which guaranteed the Developer over $20 million,” Ramirez’s allegation reads.

“This is a crime,” reads the accompanying comment.

Garza said the incident happened in 2005. He and two then-city commissioners met with one of the developers of the outlet mall.

“I have no idea why she’s saying this is an illegal meeting because two commissioners can meet with a developer, just like they do now. Just like the mayor meets with developers. As long as it’s not three of you, it’s fine,” Garza said, saying the lunch did not involve a walking quorum.

Nor was there any talk of $20 million, he said.

For Garza, the impetus of the allegations against him all revolve around the city’s ongoing lawsuits — litigation which accuses former city officials of self-dealing and using the DCM, in part, to do so.

That’s why he kept trying to add an item to the DCM executive session agenda — to potentially expand the litigation in an attempt to recover more money, he said.

Garza said the item he wanted to discuss involved a $150,000 payment to Arriola that the DCM approved during a March 4, 2016 meeting to help renovate the building that was slated to become Texas Polytechnic Institute.

“When they had the meeting, Montoya was there, and so was Fred,” Garza said, referring to Mayor Oscar Montoya, who at the time served on the DCM board, and Fred Gonzalez, who now serves as the board president.

“We’re suing him (Arriola). It’s already in the works, the FBI investigated, the city got served. But, nobody’s talking about the $150,000 that the EDC board gave him later to clean up the place. So, I wanted to discuss this so we could add that to the ongoing lawsuit,” Garza said.

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