Mercedes city manager to step down

Mercedes City Manager Sergio Zavala will hold the post no longer after the city commission voted to accept his resignation during a meeting Tuesday. The resignation will become effective in 30 days.

The decision came after the commission retired to executive session, where they were scheduled to discuss the city manager’s appointment and duties, according to the meeting agenda.

Once the commission returned to open session, City Attorney Anthony Troiani walked the commissioners through wording of the motion.

“I’d like to ask the city commission to consider accepting Mr. Zavala’s resignation, (and) starting the process for finding an interim and/or a replacement city manager, and instructing Mr. Zavala to … start possibly the bid process to employ an executive management firm to start a city manager search,” Troiani said.

Place 3 Commissioner Cristella “Cris” De Leon Hernandez made the motion, which was seconded by Place 2 Commissioner Leonel Benavidez. The motion passed unanimously.

Mayor Oscar Montoya addressed the city manager just before the meeting adjourned.

“Mr. Zavala, I want to wish you all of God’s blessings, sir,” Montoya said. “Thank you for your time here. Thank you for your efforts, and thank you for giving us the time to help us find somebody to replace you.”

Reached after the meeting Tuesday evening, Zavala said his departure is not a resignation, but a retirement — a second retirement.

“As you may or may not know, I was retired before I came here. I came here to help a friend of mine,” Zavala said, adding that a resignation letter he addressed to the city mentions his retirement.

“I enjoyed my experience greatly in the city of Mercedes … but there’s a certain time that you know you need to move on,” the city manager said.

Zavala first came to Mercedes as a consultant in the summer of 2017. It was a position he expected to last just a few months. Instead, in August of that year, he was officially appointed as city manager.

“What I thought when I came here to Mercedes originally, I thought it would be for like three months, and I’ve been here for over three years,” he said.

During that time, he has served in the dual roles of city manager and planning director.

Last year, Zavala named Dagoberto “Dago” Chavez his assistant city manager. However, shortly after that decision, former police Chief Olga Maldonado — who had served the police department for over three decades — retired and Chavez was elevated to become the city’s top police officer.

Like Zavala, Chavez has maintained two roles by continuing to serve as assistant city manager while also assuming the mantle of police chief.

But whether Chavez will be named interim city manager as Mercedes begins its search for a new administrator remained unclear Tuesday. The commission did not name Chavez as interim during Tuesday’s meeting, and Zavala said the city needs no interim while he serves out the remainder of his 30 days.

“He is the assistant city manager. He will continue to be the assistant city manager until I’m gone,” Zavala said. “There’s no need for him to be interim if I’m still there.”

Serving in multiple capacities is something the city manager described as “intense.”

Place 4 Commissioner Jose Gomez characterized it as “crazy.”

“This would have been crazy,” Gomez said of the idea of appointing the police chief to serve as interim city manager while the city searches for a person to permanently fulfill the role.

“He would have been the city manager, plus the police chief and the assistant city manager. And he really, really has not had the experience of an assistant city manager,” Gomez added after the meeting.

Gomez said he was excited to see what direction Mercedes will move in next.

“It’s a good day, a new day for the city of Mercedes. And yes, we moved forward in the right direction,” Gomez said of accepting Zavala’s resignation.

Benavidez agreed with his fellow commissioner about Zavala’s departure.

“I’m not hesitant in saying this: is that I am, for many reasons, thankful that he resigned. That’s what I would go on the record with,” Benavidez said.

Over the last year, both Gomez and Benavidez have often clashed with the city manager, Chavez and other members of the commission. But, with Montoya as a newly-minted mayor, and two new commissioners slated to be elected at the conclusion of next Tuesday’s runoff election, there is a sense that the political winds have shifted in Mercedes.

“There’s a new commission obviously coming on board. There were some obvious issues going on here,” Benavidez said of his impressions of Zavala’s job performance.

“With the candidates running on improving all that and the issues that we’re facing, I can’t say exactly what happened, but I can say there was a growing, how can I say, need for change,” he said.

Zavala, too, mentioned the incoming commissioners as adding a particular sort of kismet for the timing of his departure.

“It seems to make sense, as well, that there’s a pretty new city commission coming in, so that way they can choose their own CM and move forward,” Zavala said.

He will continue to make himself available to city staff as the transition moves forward, he said.

Montoya, part of the slate of new elected officials, wished Zavala the best.

“There was no ill will with him. It was something he chose to do,” Montoya said.

“Now we need to move forward and select someone for the future,” he said.