San Benito picks interim fire chief

SAN BENITO — The city now has an interim fire chief.

And as of last night, it appeared Fire Chief Raul Zuniga still wore his badge.

After about a month of attempts, city commissioners voted to confirm City Manager Manuel De La Rosa’s appointment of Capt. Boris Esparza as interim fire chief, effective today.

Meanwhile, John Shergold, Zuniga’s attorney, said Zuniga remained fire chief.

Last week, however, De La Rosa said he planned to assign Zuniga to a captain’s rank.

Shergold argued Zuniga, a 32-year veteran, was being demoted because of his age.

In response, Zuniga will file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission while taking his case before the Civil Service Commission, Shergold said after the meeting.

“My client is of the belief his demotion is based on age discrimination since his replacement is substantially younger,” Shergold said.

Since early last month, Zuniga’s fate has appeared to hang in limbo.

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

Since then, Shergold’s letter to City Attorney Ricardo Morado 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 rank along with a request to appoint Esparza as interim chief.

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

“Government should be transparent,” Shergold said last night. “That is a fundamental concept of the founding fathers and the Constitution of the United States.”

At the Aug. 29 meeting, Commissioner Carol Lynn Sanchez, as mayor pro tem, said commissioners would reconsider the request at their next meeting set for Sept. 5.

Shergold argued Sanchez’s statement “bound” the city to discuss Zuniga’s case.

But since the Aug. 29 meeting, De La Rosa stopped requesting commissioners confirm his removal of Zuniga’s rank.

Instead, De La Rosa has requested commissioners confirm his appointment of Estrada as interim chief.

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’ abstention counted as a vote against the motion, City Secretary Lupita Passement said.

Mayor Ben Gomez was absent from that meeting.

Last night, Rodriguez, who was on business in Corpus Christi, said he was absent because he did not have two weeks’ notice of the meeting.