San Benito mulls fire chief’s future

SAN BENITO — For nearly a month, the city has been trying to strip Fire Chief Raul Zuniga of his rank and appoint an interim chief to replace him.

Tomorrow, city commissioners are expected to try again to confirm City Manager Manuel De La Rosa’s appointment of Capt. Boris Esparza as interim fire chief.

“It’s been dragging,” City Commissioner Esteban Rodriguez said yesterday. “I think the citizens are ready to put this behind us. I think the firemen are ready to get it settled if we we’re going with a new leader or staying with our old leader.”

Rodriguez said De La Rosa has declined to use his authority to strip Zuniga of his title and appoint Esparza as interim chief.

“Mr. De La Rosa has the authorization to demote and fire any city employee as he sees fit,” Rodriguez said.

However, Ricardo Navarro, a contracted attorney who handles the city’s Civil Service cases, advised De La Rosa to appoint an interim chief before taking any action regarding Zuniga’s case, Rodriguez said.

“I don’t know why he’s going down this route,” Rodriguez said. “In my opinion, he should have done everything he has to do and move forward. I want to put this behind us.”

But if commissioners confirm De La Rosa’s appointment of an interim fire chief, Zuniga will consider legal action, attorney John Shergold said.

“The fire chief does not recognize the appointment of any other personnel to his position,” Shergold said yesterday.

How we got here

Since last month, Zuniga’s fate has been one of the hottest topics in town.

On Aug. 8, De La Rosa placed Zuniga, a 32-year veteran of the department, on paid administrative leave pending an investigation into undisclosed “allegations.”

Since then, Shergold’s letter to City Attorney Ricardo Morado has indicates Zuniga’s case stems from his 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 while appointing Esparza as interim chief.

Before commissioners’ decision to postpone action on the request, Shergold demanded they discuss Zuniga’s case in open, public forum, as the Texas Open Meetings Act allows.

At that meeting, Commissioner Carol Lynn Sanchez, as mayor pro tem, said commissioners would reconsider the request at their next meeting.

But since then, De La Rosa has asked commissioners to confirm his appointment of Estrada as interim chief, not his previous request to confirm his removal of Zuniga’s title.

On Sept. 19, a split vote stopped the push to replace Zuniga.

Amid fiery debate, Sanchez and Commissioner Rene Villafranco voted to appoint Esparza interim fire chief.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez voted against the appointment while Commissioner Tony Gonzales’s abstention counted as a vote against the motion, City Secretary Lupita Passement said.

Mayor Ben Gomez was absent from the meeting.

Tomorrow, De La Rosa has again requested commissioners confirm his appointment of Esparza as interim chief, effective Thursday.

Yesterday, Shergold warned he would cite the city for a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act if commissioners appoint an interim fire chief without discussing Zuniga’s case in open, public forum.

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

Story Highlights

– Aug. 8 — Zuniga placed on paid administrative leave

– Aug. 29 — city commissioners postpone action

– Sept. 19, the commission’s split vote stops a push to replace Zuniga