Mercedes official faces potential censure

MERCEDES — Simmering political discord on the Mercedes City Commission resurfaced after a member of the voting minority opted to face two complaints lodged against him in open session rather than behind closed doors Tuesday evening.

Mercedes City Commissioner Leonel Benavides, far left, addresses complaints lodged against him during a Mercedes City Commission meeting Tuesday. To his left are City Manager Sergio Zavala and Mayor Henry Hinojosa. (Dina Arévalo | [email protected])

Place 2 Commissioner Leonel Benavides, who was elected for the first time in May, chose to discuss the complaints — filed by both a current and a former city employee — before the public, saying he was not surprised by the complaints.

Benavides argued that his actions and conversations with the two complainants were being misconstrued and falsified in an effort to target him politically.

The first complaint, filed by interim City Secretary Joselynn Castillo, revolves around a hand gesture Benavides made while he, Castillo, Place 4 Commissioner Jose Gomez and City Attorney Mark Sossi were having a discussion in July.

In a sworn affidavit, Castillo alleges that Benavides directed a hand gesture toward her which she interpreted as a directive to stop speaking. “He had his four fingers together and his thumb open and then closed it, which is signaling to ‘shut my mouth,’” Castillo wrote in her complaint, which was read aloud by the city manager Tuesday.

Benavides denied the allegation, saying instead that the gesture he made was meant to ask Castillo for some time while he and Gomez conferred with Sossi on a legal matter. “I did this — it’s a thumb and an index finger,” Benavides said, holding his hand up with his index and thumb making a pinching motion.

“She thinks that I did this, like telling her to be quiet,” Benavides said, changing the position of his fingers to look more like a hand puppet, with all four fingers outstretched and pinching down towards his thumb. “I never did that. I did this. I said, ‘Can you give us a moment? This is a legal matter,’” he said.

“I found it offensive,” City Manager Sergio Zavala said, reading from Castillo’s complaint.

Afterward, Zavala said he found Castillo’s complaint to be credible because of her demeanor and tone. “When a staff member feels to that level, as far as putting it in writing, that’s not their first choice,” Zavala said.

Mercedes City Attorney Anthony Troiani, center, addresses a comment from a member of the public during a Mercedes City Commission meeting Tuesday. (Dina Arévalo | [email protected])

Zavala continued, saying Castillo alerted him to the incident moments after it occurred, after which the pair approached Benavides, who had since gone into a nearby conference room to continue his discussion with Gomez and Sossi. Castillo told the commissioner she felt like he was telling her “to shut up.”

The second complaint against Benavides stems from a cellphone conversation he had with a now-former Mercedes police officer, Marcelo Garcia, in mid-August.

In his sworn affidavit, Garcia alleges Benavides asked him questions regarding the new police chief and the department’s administration, as well as the demotion of a fellow officer.

Garcia alleges Benavides asked him how he liked “the new direction that the Mercedes police department was heading,” to which Garcia replied he “had only seen good changes being made by our new administration.”

Garcia also alleges Benavides made disparaging remarks about then-newly hired Chief Dagoberto Chavez. “The first statement was that Chief Chavez was a rookie and the second was that Chief Chavez is not qualified to be chief of police,” Garcia wrote in his affidavit, which was also read aloud by the city manager.

Benavides denied, in part, Garcia’s allegations, as well, going as far as to say that the portion of the conversation about the department’s administration never occurred.

As to his comments regarding Chavez, Benavides admitted to calling the chief a rookie, but insisted it was an opinion based in fact, as Chavez had never served as a chief of police prior to his appointment to the position in Mercedes.

Benavides also disputed the idea that he dismissed Chavez’s qualifications to be chief, clarifying that he was instead asking Garcia what Chavez’s qualifications were, not that Chavez was unqualified.

The city manager commented on Garcia’s allegations, saying he found them “concerning” and damaging to the city’s morale. “One of the things that we’re trying to do is make the proper adjustments so that we can improve morale… And comments like this, are, erode that intent, that program that we’re trying to instill,” Zavala said.

Benavides questioned the veracity of the allegations and the intent behind them after he was unable to obtain specifics about the complaints from Sossi, he said. “All of this does feel like an ambush and targeting,” Benavides said.

Benavides said he had reached out to both the Texas Attorney General’s Office and the Texas Municipal League seeking guidance on the complaints, as well as his own actions. TML, he said, told him “there was no violation,” he said.

But City Attorney Anthony Troiani interrupted, saying TML had no authority in the matter, and questioned if Benavides had provided the organization with all the information regarding the complaints.

Earlier in the discussion, Troiani also chided Benavides for choosing to hold the discussion in open session. “Normally people have these issues … done in executive session, but you would like to have this done on the record in open session,” Troiani said, before adding that Benavides should not try to make comparisons with how disciplinary proceedings in past instances have been handled by the city commission.

Troiani likened the discussion to being tried, saying the commission would collectively decide what to do about the complaints. “They will either exonerate you or find that the complaints are valid,” he said.

After a protracted and sometimes heated discussion, which included an exchange when the police chief signaled an officer to remove a member of the public from the chamber, Commissioner Gomez asked what the commission was supposed to consider. Mayor Henry Hinojosa responded they must decide whether or not to censure Benavides.

The woman who was asked to leave was ultimately allowed to remain after other members of the public protested her removal.

Ultimately, the commission chose to delay making a ruling pending the advice of both the AG and TML.

It’s unclear, however, what form a censure could take. The city charter is silent on the idea of censure, but does lay out a process for judging whether an elected official should forfeit office should such an official violate one of several prohibitions listed in the charter.

Among those prohibitions is a stipulation that elected officials go through the city manager to deal with any employees under the city manager’s purview. “And neither the City Commission nor its members shall give any order to any such officer or employee, either publicly or privately,” Section 2.05 of the charter reads.