SAN BENITO — Former Fire Chief Raul Zuniga is accusing the city’s new interim fire chief of retaliation.
On Oct. 4, Interim Chief Boris Esparza sent information to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement stating Zuniga was terminated, John Shergold, an attorney representing Zuniga, said.
Shergold said the city claims Esparza erroneously sent the information.
“It’s my understanding that the city is in the process of correcting the error that was made by sending the incorrect information to TCOLE,” Shergold said in an interview.
All this comes on the heels of changes at the top of the fire department.
Last month, City Manager Manuel De La Rosa demoted Zuniga to a captain’s rank after an investigation into undisclosed “allegations” and appointed Esparza interim chief.
Shergold accused Esparza of retaliation, the most recent claim, arguing the interim fire chief sent the information to the state a day after Zuniga filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, arguing his demotion was based on age discrimination.
“We believe it was retaliation for filing the complaint,” Shergold said. “My client wants to know how a mistake of that magnitude could have been made by the new fire chief appointed to replace him.”
The city declined to comment on whether it disciplined Esparza for sending the form.
“The city does not comment on personnel matters,” city spokeswoman Martha McClain stated.
On Oct. 3, Zuniga filed complaints with the city and the EEOC, claiming De La Rosa told him he should retire.
As part of the complaint, Zuniga requests the Texas Workforce Commission’s Division of Civil Rights investigate his claim.
“I told the city manager I was not going to retire,” Zuniga states in his complaint, “(T)hen within 24 hours I am instructed that I would be placed on administrative leave with pay.”
“This is evidence that the city manager discriminated against me because of my age,” Zuniga wrote. “Shortly thereafter, I am recommended by the city manager to be demoted and replaced by a younger, less qualified employee for fire chief that I had trained myself, who is substantially younger by 10 years.”
In the complaint filed with the city, Shergold claimed the city was retaliating against Zuniga, requesting an internal investigation into the claim of retaliation.
Shergold requested the City Commission appoint an investigator other than De La Rosa.
“I am asking that your client refrain from taking any retaliatory actions against my client for opposing workplace discrimination,” Shergold wrote in a letter to City Attorney Ricardo Morado. “Specifically, I ask that you advise the city manager of the prohibition of retaliating against an employee who files and opposes a discriminatory practice ….”
In response, Morado denied the city discriminated against Zuniga.
“To the contrary, the city of San Benito has afforded your client all privileges and protections to which he is entitled under law,” Morado wrote to Shergold in an Oct. 12 email.
“Although your client has chosen to initiate a complaint before the Texas Workforce Commission, as a city employee he is expected to comport himself in accordance with the applicable personnel policies of the city of San Benito. Please remind him to do so.”
Morado, who wrote the city’s personnel policy manual that “prohibits discrimination against any person,” stated Yolanda Villafranca, the city’s human resources director, would investigate Zuniga’s complaint.
The personnel policy manual “creates no obligation upon the city or its staff to actually conduct an investigation,” Morado wrote. “Nevertheless, Human Resources Director Yolanda Villafranca will internally investigate your client’s complaint.”
How we got here
Zuniga, a 32-year veteran of the department, had served as fire chief since 2012.
On Aug. 8, De La Rosa placed Zuniga on paid administrative leave pending an investigation into undisclosed “allegations” apparently stemming from his bidding at a fire department auction.
Then on Sept. 28, De La Rosa reassigned Zuniga to captain, cutting his salary by about $20,000, after city commissioners confirmed his appointment of Esparza as interim chief.
Aug. 8 — City Manager Manuel De La Rosa places Fire Chief Raul Zuniga on paid administrative leave
Sept. 27 — City commissioners vote to confirm De La Rosa’s appointment of interim chief Boris Esparza
Sept. 28 — De La Rosa reassigns Zuniga to captain
Oct. 3 — Zuniga files complaints arguing his demotion was based on age discrimination
Oct. 4 — Esparza sends information to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement stating Zuniga was terminated