Mercedes city manager sues over suspension

    Ricardo Garcia has filed a lawsuit challenging his suspension as Mercedes city manager, citing defamation, conspiracy and violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act among the allegations levied at local leaders.

    Ricardo Garcia has filed a lawsuit challenging his suspension as Mercedes city manager, citing defamation, conspiracy and violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act among the allegations levied at local leaders.

    Defendants named in the lawsuit, which was filed Monday with the Hidalgo County District Clerk’s office, include the City of Mercedes, Mayor Henry Hinojosa, Place 4 City Commissioner Ruben “Chano” Guajardo and Leo Villarreal, who’s a candidate for the Place 1 seat on the commission.

    Garcia’s suit argues that the commission’s unanimous action to suspend him without pay at a March 30 special meeting was in violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

    Citing section 551.041of the Texas Government Code, which states that “a governmental body shall give written notice of the date, hour, place and subject of each meeting …,” the suit charges that the language in the special meeting agenda was “vague” and failed to notify the public of the commission’s intention to consider suspending the city manager.

    The executive session item in question read as follows: “Discussion regarding duties and responsibilities of the city manager regarding utility bills for Texas Valley Communities Foundation and VIDA – Texas Government Code, Section 551.074-Personnel.”

    It’s an item that refers to accounting discrepancies a citizen unearthed earlier this year, in which the city paid more than $35,000 worth of the foundation’s electric bills for a period of nearly five years. A similar discrepancy found that the city also paid the utility bills of the Valley Initiative of Development and Advancement.

    City Attorney Juan Molina has confirmed that the city was fully reimbursed in both instances, and Garcia identified the matter as a case of human error. With regard to the foundation, Garcia said the account associated with a meter located at the nonprofit’s 1098 W. Expressway 83 property in Mercedes, which was previously owned by the city, had not been transferred to the nonprofit.

    The city manager’s suspension was pending an audit of all nonprofit organizations’ accounts, of which the findings were to be presented at a special meeting on Wednesday. That meeting, however, was canceled earlier this week.

    What’s more, City Secretary Arcie Felix responded to a request for the audit by informing that city officials have not yet been presented with a copy.

    Still, the matter remained a focal point with candidates during the city’s May election and is likely to continue to be of relevance during the subsequent runoffs. It’s also become a source of concern for local residents.

    Hinojosa, Guajardo and Villarreal are accused of conspiracy in the suit for allegedly meeting at the Sunrise Café in Weslaco several days prior to Garcia’s ouster and planning a “ploy to deflect criticism” by scapegoating the city manager.

    “The mayor and other members began to feel heat from the public regarding the payment of the bills, even though that due to Mr. Garcia’s efforts the city had been completely reimbursed for all payments,” the suit alleges, further contending that Garcia “had no prior knowledge” and “did not attempt to cover up the overpayment” in addition to alleging that the plaintiffs sought to protect themselves. “Mayor Hinojosa and other commissioners felt that wrongfully blaming Mr. Garcia for the matter would save their positions of power with the city.”

    Upon being asked for comment, Villarreal declined, Guajardo preferred waiting until he’s seen the suit, and Hinojosa deferred to Molina.

    Echoing Guajardo’s remark, Molina said he wouldn’t say much since the city, mayor and commission were not yet served with the court documents as of Thursday, and only confirmed that the Texas Municipal League — Mercedes’ insurance carrier — has assigned Harlingen attorney Ricardo Navarro to represent them in the matter.

    Garcia, who’s being represented by McAllen attorney Thomas G. Rayfield, was instructed by counsel to say little.

    “We’re not going to attempt to try this case in the court of public opinion, but we do hope at some point in time everyone can hear the facts of this case,” Garcia said.

    Other allegations argued in the suit include defamation resulting in pecuniary injury, and emotional distress “of a severe nature” that caused “mental as well as physical pain” for the plaintiffs — of whom Garcia’s wife, Dahlia Garcia, is named.

    “The plaintiffs have suffered feelings of anxiety, worthlessness, embarrassment and inferiority,” the suit claims.

    More than $1 million is sought in damages, which include Garcia’s back pay and any lost wages.