Split vote stops fire chief’s replacement

SAN BENITO — Amid heated debate, a split vote killed a push to replace Fire Chief Raul Zuniga.

Last night, Commissioners Rene Villafranco and Carol Lynn Sanchez voted to appoint Capt. Boris Esparza to serve as interim fire chief more than a month after City Manager Manuel De La Rosa placed Zuniga on paid administrative leave pending an investigation.

But Commissioner Esteban Rodriguez voted against appointing an interim chief, while Commissioner Tony Gonzales’ abstention counted as a vote against the motion, City Secretary Lupita Passement said after the meeting.

Mayor Ben Gomez was absent from the meeting in which firefighters filled the back of the City Hall chambers.

During the meeting’s public comment period, John Shergold, Zuniga’s attorney, requested commissioners discuss his client’s case in an open, public forum.

Amid tense discussions, Rodriguez warned appointing an interim fire chief could lead Zuniga to file a lawsuit against the city.

Rodriguez said he wanted to know why the meeting’s agenda did not address De La Rosa’s request that commissioners confirm his removal of Zuniga’s title.

“We haven’t taken any action with Chief Zuniga,” Rodriguez said. “Now we’re appointing (an interim) fire chief. Are we going to have two fire chiefs?”

In response, De La Rosa said he planned today to assign Zuniga to a captain’s rank.

Civil Service law, he said, requires an interim fire chief take any further disciplinary action in the case.

Meanwhile, Shergold said Zuniga was considering legal action against the city.

“My client reserves all options legally to take action against the city of San Benito regarding his employment,” Shergold said in an interview.

Shergold said he and Zuniga met with De La Rosa and City Attorney Ricardo Morado before the meeting.

“We unequivocally told the city manager (Zuniga) is not retiring, he’s not resigning, he hasn’t done anything wrong and he’s ready to go back as fire chief immediately,” Shergold said after the meeting.

On Aug. 8, De La Rosa placed Zuniga on paid administrative leave pending an investigation into “allegations.”

Those allegations apparently stem from Zuniga’s bidding at a fire department auction.

On Aug. 29, commissioners postponed action on De La Rosa’s request to confirm his removal of Zuniga’s title and appointment of an acting fire chief.

Commissioners’ decision to postpone action came after Shergold requested any discussions about Zuniga be held in an open public forum.

Sanchez, as mayor pro tem, said commissioners would reconsider the matter at their next meeting, Sept. 5. But the matter did not appear on the Sept. 5 meeting agenda.

Zuniga, a 32-year department veteran, has served as fire chief since 2012.