After more than a year of receiving consistently late payments from their neighbor, the Weslaco City Commission in November voted to terminate its contract to house Mercedes prisoners at the Weslaco city jail.
The Queen City had been housing its prisoners in Weslaco at a rate of $54 per prisoner per day after its own jail and police department had been deemed unfit for human occupancy due to mold and plumbing issues.
However, it was more than just late payments that led Weslaco to execute the contract’s exit clause, according to Weslaco City Manager Mike Perez.
“It was a number of issues. I mean, payments, how they operated, (and) a few other issues,” Perez said.
Perez declined to elaborate on what he meant by how Mercedes operated, but things had clearly become untenable by October.
“We just had issues with how they were operating, and that’s about as detailed as I’m going to get,” he said.
Weslaco police Chief Joel Rivera echoed some of those concerns, saying communicating with Mercedes had been difficult. In a letter dated Oct. 23, Rivera notified then-Mercedes police Chief Dagoberto “Dago” Chavez that Weslaco would be terminating the contract.
“We would communicate out, but we would never hear anything back,” Rivera said Friday of his department’s attempts to communicate with Mercedes.
The city manager said those issues were enough to cause concern.
“When things aren’t operating correctly, we do have concerns — concerns about operating, concerns about liability, concerns about the prisoners — all of that,” Perez said.
As a result, the commission voted unanimously to terminate the contract, effective Jan. 4.
Meanwhile, officials in Weslaco had been led to believe that Mercedes was pursuing other options for housing their prisoners.
One such option was the Donna city jail. But when reached for comment Thursday, Donna police Chief Gilbert Guerrero said those conversations never went past preliminary stages.
According to Guerrero, Chavez approached him last month to gauge Donna’s interest in housing Mercedes’ prisoners. Chavez told Guerrero he was also still negotiating with Weslaco.
But that was the extent of the conversation, even as Weslaco terminated the contract.
“They never came back,” Guerrero said.
“They never got serious.”
On the same day the Weslaco City Commission voted to terminate its contract with Mercedes, change was afoot a few miles away in Mercedes.
That night, residents elected a new mayor in Oscar Montoya, a career law enforcement officer and emergency management coordinator. Meanwhile, four other candidates were headed to a runoff election for Places 1 and 3 on the commission.
Before voters could decide who would fill those two seats, however, both Chavez and City Manager Sergio Zavala had announced their departures.
Chavez’s last day with the Mercedes Police Department was Wednesday and Zavala did not return messages seeking comment.
But, it’s in light of those myriad changes that Weslaco has agreed to give their neighbor another chance. On Tuesday, the commission voted to grant Mercedes a 30-day extension, giving them until Feb. 3 to figure out what to do next.
With Chavez gone, Jose Macias, formerly the assistant chief, has stepped in to serve as interim chief.
Macias came to Mercedes after retiring from a 30-year law enforcement career in Mission and Sharyland.
He has experience working in narcotics, and overseeing patrol, criminal investigations and major crimes, he said.
Macias retired as the head of the Mission Police Department’s criminal investigations division in March. The following month, he joined Mercedes as assistant chief.
Rivera said things have changed since Macias took the helm — namely, communication.
“The interim chief and the mayor have done an outstanding job of communicating — the new mayor. I never spoke with the old mayor,” Rivera said.
“Communicating is a big deal, so I think those things have been remedied,” he said of his previous concerns about continuing the jail contract.
Now, the two departments will use the 30-day extension to reevaluate the contract, making it “better” and “something that’s going to be more favorable to both cities,” Rivera said.
For his part, Macias said straightening out the jail contract is one of his highest priorities, as is rebuilding trust with the community.
“That’s why I’m here now, and I hope that we have an open transparency — not only with other departments nearby, but with you the media, and anybody else that needs anything answered,” Macias said.
The interim chief said he was also aware of some of the events that happened within Mercedes at the hands of the police department over the last year, including rising tensions with some residents, and a lack of communication with the media.
“I was familiarized with some of the stuff that was happening here, and that’s an uphill battle that we have here in this department, but we’re gonna work through that and hopefully we can regain the trust of the community and the media, too,” he said.
As attitudes about law enforcement have evolved across the nation, it’s even more incumbent upon law enforcement officers to evolve with their communities, he said.
“We’ve gotta change with the times … The only way we can accomplish that is by being able to have some transparency. If we don’t have transparency, we have no trust,” Macias said.
But as for Mercedes staying current in its payments to Weslaco, Macias said that’s under the control of city hall and the finance department. And as with the community, it’s a matter of rebuilding trust.
“I’ve gotta make sure they’re doing their part so we will not look bad, like (by) not meeting what the requirements are,” Macias said.