MERCEDES — A city commissioner known here for asking questions about everything from finances to public integrity is now in the hot seat himself.
Place 4 Commissioner Jose Gomez is facing several allegations of interfering with city staff — allegations that could rise to the criminal level of official oppression.
The Mercedes City Commission was slated to discuss the allegations against Gomez behind closed doors Tuesday night, but the issue was put on hold after Gomez refused to participate without an attorney.
Gomez also declined to have the allegations discussed in public until he has an attorney to represent him.
“I don’t want to go into a discussion about me … I won’t join you for that because I feel like I need representation,” the commissioner said Tuesday night as his colleagues deliberated whether or not to go behind closed doors.
Gomez is being accused of interfering with city staff, including usurping authority from City Manager Albert Perez and Public Works Director Joaquin Hernandez. He is also accused of harassing an employee who received a workplace injury after he sought to contact the man to offer prayers for his quick recovery.
The allegations could rise to a criminal level that could potentially force him to resign his seat on the city commission, according to a letter City Attorney Martie Garcia Vela sent him Oct. 18.
“The conduct alleged may be a basis for forfeiture of your office. The complaint appears to also be alleging you may be committing a crime as the Texas Penal Code is cited,” Garcia Vela wrote, referring to a six-page complaint submitted to the commission for deliberation at Tuesday’s meeting.
Garcia Vela wrote the letter in response to a list of questions Gomez asked about the potential ramifications of the allegations.
In the complaint, the city manager claims Gomez is violating the city charter by reaching out to city staff and hired contractors regarding infrastructure issues.
In particular, Perez points to a series of incidents this spring in which Gomez spoke with the then-newly hired public works director regarding several lift stations that are known to be in need of repair.
Perez’s complaint describes how Gomez subsequently reported the issues to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which regulates public water and wastewater systems, as well as how he reached out to the vendor responsible for maintaining Mercedes’ system, U.S. Water.
“Commissioner Gomez personally contacted TCEQ to report the city sewer issues and possible violations. Mr. Gomez was not authorized by the Commission not (sic) did I request his individual involvement in this matter,” Perez’s complaint said in part.
Perez’s complaint also includes copies of letters from Hernandez and a USW representative as evidence of Gomez’s interference.
But moreover, the city manager pointed to his votes as a commissioner, implying that his recent record of voting against Mercedes acquiring new debt was further interference.
“It is evident that Mr. Gomez is not supporting my role as City Manage (sic) to resolve the TCEQ issues and possible violations given the fact that during the budget cycle process this year, Commissioner Gomez opposed requests for borrowing funds to address TCEQ concerns or possible violations,” Perez wrote.
Speaking to the allegations Wednesday, Gomez said he feels he is being retaliated against for voting against the new debt — and for asking questions.
The debt was a hotly debated matter that pitted Gomez and Place 2 Commissioner Leonel Benavidez against the commission majority, including Mayor Oscar Montoya and commissioners Jacob Howell and Joe Martinez.
As the fiscal budget deadline loomed late this summer, the commission debated on how to increase revenues in order to address decades-old infrastructure issues, and Mercedes’ non-solvent utility fund.
Those methods included raising property taxes and water bills, and taking on some $8.5 million in public debt via certificates of obligation — this just as the city’s finance director spoke of how tight the city’s budget was, and as department heads were asked to make cuts wherever possible.
Gomez and Benavidez were against the idea of increasing the city’s debt load, and instead sought to investigate other ways to fund the improvements, including through additional budget cuts or taking on less debt.
HISTORY OF TURMOIL
This isn’t the first time a Mercedes commissioner has been accused of acting beyond his scope as an elected official.
In 2019, Benavidez faced similar allegations that he had interfered with city staff, among other complaints.
Then-Mayor Henry Hinojosa used the allegations to try to remove Benavidez from office under a provision of the city charter, which states that members of the commission are prohibited from giving directives to city staff.
Benavidez took the city to court to prevent the attempted ouster. Ultimately, the city dropped the issue after a September 2019 meeting erupted into chaos and led to the arrest of four residents.
Gomez fears the new majority and the new city manager are now trying to do the same thing to him — but on a worse level because of the threat of a criminal charge.
“That’s why I wanted an attorney,” Gomez said.
The city attorney, however, denied that the objective of the complaints is to remove Gomez from office or seek criminal charges against him, but rather to clarify his role as a commissioner.
“I think that was the ultimate goal — not to get him arrested, not to get him removed, but just say, ‘Hey, take a step back because you’re on the verge of maybe crossing the line,’” Garcia Vela said Wednesday.
For his part, Gomez said he has no confidence in such assurances from the city attorney. He added that the allegations he’s facing — like Benavidez faced before him — could have a chilling effect on those seeking public office in the future.
“I am very concerned over the criminal charge,” Gomez said. “That is very dangerous for any person considering running as an elected official because you are not allowed to perform the duties that are under a city elected official.
“You have to be a puppet, and I will never be a puppet. I will always be a servant to the people,” he said.