The city of Mercedes has tapped longtime McAllen City Attorney Kevin Pagan to serve as interim city manager. The move comes as Mercedes looks to fill a number of high-level positions vacated in the wake of a political shift in the Queen City.

The Mercedes City Commission keyed in on Pagan during a special meeting Wednesday where they discussed a number of applicants for the position behind closed doors in executive session.

The commission directed outgoing City Manager Sergio Zavala and City Attorney Anthony Troiani to reach out to Pagan to begin contract negotiations.

But it wasn’t a unanimous decision. While the commission’s newest members — including Mayor Oscar Montoya, and Commissioners Jacob Howell and Joe Martinez — voted in favor of hiring Pagan, Commissioners Leonel Benavidez and Jose Gomez voted against it.

Indeed, as the commission returned to open session, Benavidez motioned to table the appointment because of what he felt was Pagan’s lack of experience as a city administrator.

“Mayor, I make the motion to table, and the reason I do is because of the very issues that we face right now in that there’s a lack of experience on some of these positions that were initially given to the department heads,” Benavidez said.

“That’s something that we’re potentially facing here in this category,” he said.

But without support from another commissioner, Benavidez’s motion died. Instead, Howell motioned to pursue Pagan as interim city manager, citing how little time the city has before Zavala, the current city manager, leaves.

Zavala submitted his letter of resignation at the beginning of the month and will work his last day on Jan. 1.

“Time is of the essence,” Howell said.

“Right now, it’s very critical for the community of Mercedes to have somebody during a transitional period, especially the legal issues that we’re facing. Somebody that’s going to help us with the transition,” he said.

Speaking after the meeting, the mayor agreed with Howell’s sense of urgency.

“Quite frankly, two weeks isn’t enough time,” Montoya said of trying to search for and hire a permanent city manager.

“I, personally, would like to see somebody come in that’s not going to be hungry for the job, but is going to help us find somebody,” he said.

It was for that reason that Montoya, a longtime emergency management coordinator, reached out to Pagan — who has also served as the McAllen emergency management coordinator for the past 18 years — and encouraged him to toss his name in the hat.

In November, Pagan announced he would be retiring from McAllen after a 26-year career there.

“When Mayor Montoya heard that, he contacted me and asked if I would have any interest in temporarily being the interim city manager in Mercedes,” Pagan said Friday.

Pagan’s tenure in McAllen will come to an end shortly after the new year. In his time there, he has served as interim city manager, and has overseen the risk management, and the drug and alcohol compliance departments.

Rare among Hidalgo County cities, McAllen’s city attorney is an in-house position. As such, Pagan oversees a department full of other attorneys, administrative staff and insurance adjusters, since the city also self-insures.

Recently, he has also been overseeing the municipal court and city prosecutor staff.

Pagan said he’s humbled that Mercedes would consider him for the interim position.

“I appreciate that they considered me and I would be very excited to help the mayor and commission and Mercedes in any way that I possibly can,” Pagan said.

Pagan added his goal is to help Mercedes find a full-time city manager and that anything beyond that he “would need to discuss with the mayor and city commission, if and when I were to get over there.”

But it’s a lack of discussion with the city commission as a whole that drew criticism from Commissioner Benavidez.

Speaking after the meeting, Benavidez said the commission deliberated on the candidates without hearing from any of them directly.

“There was no presentation, no interview process by the commission,” Benavidez said.

“We should have had that interview process. I think it would have helped,” he said.

Instead, the discussions revolved around generalized praise for a candidate he felt was predetermined, and “badmouthing” of another candidate. That badmouthing, he said, came from the mayor.

“I do not approve of the mayor calling newly elected officials, badmouthing candidates who want to work in the city of Mercedes,” Benavidez said, echoing a statement he posted to Facebook shortly after Wednesday’s meeting.

That candidate is former Edinburg City Manager Juan Guerra, who in 2019 became embroiled in a very public battle with his former romantic partner and subordinate, Miriam Cepeda, the city’s then-legislative affairs liaison. The pair publicly traded accusations against each other.

Benavidez calls the comments Montoya made about Guerra “misinformation.” When asked about Benavidez’s statements on social media, the mayor downplayed the allegation.

“I have nothing to say. Mr. Guerra is a human being, like anybody else,” Montoya said.

“He has a right to apply for the job just like anybody else, and we have a right to either select him or not,” he said.

But Benavidez wasn’t the only person who wanted to consider Guerra. Commissioner Jose Gomez also favored the man for his experience as a city manager and certified public accountant.

“I do not agree with the choice,” Gomez said of Pagan shortly before the commission voted.

“I’m looking at professionalism, certified. Juan Guerra would be my choice,” he said.

The commission is expected to finalize Pagan as their choice during a special meeting Tuesday.

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