San Benito appoints Gavino Sotelo interim city manager

The San Benito Municipal Building is pictured Friday, June 2, 2023, in San Benito. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)
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SAN BENITO — After buying out City Manager Manuel La Rosa’s contract, commissioners are counting on Gavino Sotelo’s years of experience to oversee operations while they search for the city’s next administrator.

Earlier this week, commissioners appointed Sotelo to serve as interim city manager as they debate calling on the Texas Municipal League to conduct a state-wide hunt or contract a search firm to help select San Benito’s new city manager.

“We got an interim to give us time to do a search,” Mayor Rick Guerra said during an interview. “We want to take our time. We don’t want to be in a hurry.”

$200,000 buy out

During a June 20 meeting, commissioners voted 4-1 to buy out the last year of De La Rosa’s contract paying him an annual salary of $175,000 plus benefits, with Commissioner Carol Lynn Sanchez casting the dissenting vote.

As part of an agreement, the city will pay him a total of about $200,000, Guerra said.

“We parted ways professionally, and I wish him well,” Commissioner Deborah Morales said.

The vote led to the end of De La Rosa’s seven-year tenure, cutting his term before July 1, when he would have become eligible for a $10,000 pay increase based on the past commission’s high marks on his job evaluation conducted earlier this year.

Sotelo packing experience

After weeks of speculation, commissioners appointed Sotelo to serve as interim city manager, with Sanchez casting the dissenting vote.

“He comes with 40 years’ experience or more,” Guerra said. “He’s from San Benito. Everything fell into place with him.”

As part of an agreement, Sotelo plans to work on a monthly basis, with his salary under negotiation, Guerra said.

Sotelo, who previously served as the Laguna Madre Water District’s general manager, worked as Harlingen’s city manager from 1981 to 1989 during a career in which he’s served as city manager in Kingsville and as first assistant city manager in Dallas and Lubbock.

In 2002, Sotelo served as a consultant with Estrada Hinojosa & Co. when he took a job as Los Fresnos’ interim city administrator, helping to pull the city from the brink of bankruptcy.

At City Hall, he’s taken office, now working to draft a budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

“I feel good about it,” Sotelo said. “It’s a challenge, but I enjoy that.”

Soleto said he’s planning to stay on the job for three to six months while commissioners search for the next city manager.

“Right now, my primary job is keeping the city moving with projects so projects don’t fall by the wayside,” he said.

Call for Texas Municipal League search

During the meeting, commissioners delayed their decision on the search process they’ll select as Commissioner Pete Galvan pushed for a Texas Municipal League hunt while Commissioner Tom Goodman called for the hiring of a search firm.

While Guerra and Morales joined Galvan in pushing for a Texas Municipal League search, Sanchez teamed with Goodman before commissioners voted to delay their decision.

After the meeting, Guerra noted the Texas Municipal League, which cities often turn to for help in their searches to fill top-level governmental positions, offers its services free of charge.

While calling for a state-wide hunt for a city manager, Guerra said he wanted a Texas Municipal League search driven by an understanding of the city.

“I’m looking for someone who understands what we have — do you understand the flooding, the infrastructure, the finances that we have? Why do you want someone from outside the area who doesn’t know the demographics of San Benito?” he questioned, referring to a search firm. “If we don’t find someone through TML, we’ll go with a company.”

Meanwhile, Morales said she wanted commissioners to play a key role in the search.

“I believe we were put in this position to do a job — and that’s part of the job,” she said, referring to the selection of a city manager. “It’s not a burden. We know our culture. We know our town and how to find the fit. If you’re going to hire somebody, that’s the lazy way.”

Pushing for search firm

But Goodman stood by his push to hire a search firm, putting the cost at $20,000 to $50,000.

“I consider the hiring of a city manager one of the most important decisions we make as a commission,” he said. “Therefore, I want to put all available avenues into it. I see the value. It’s a more open process.”