San Benito names its second interim fire chief in 13 months

SAN BENITO — The city is pinning a badge on its second interim fire chief.

Earlier this week, city commissioners met in closed session before announcing Lt. Adan Gonzalez Jr. was replacing Capt. Boris Esparza, who had served more than a year as interim fire chief.

Gonzalez, a 21-year veteran, will oversee the department as the city continues its lengthy search for a replacement for former longtime Fire Chief Raul Zuniga, who was demoted to a captain’s rank more than a year ago.

Esparza, who was appointed interim chief in September 2017, requested to step down from the “high-profile position that can deal with life and death issues,” City Manager Manuel De La Rosa stated yesterday.

According to De La Rosa, Esparza recommended Gonzalez take over for him.

“It was his personal decision and we respect that,” De La Rosa stated, referring to Esparza. “I was well-pleased with interim Chief Esparza’s commitment and service to the city. He met all the goals and expectations that go with the position. He stepped up to the plate to serve in the interim’s position when we needed him.”

Gonzalez, who holds state certification required to serve as a department head, will receive an annual $5,000 incentive to serve as interim chief.

How we got here

In August 2017, De La Rosa demoted Zuniga for bidding at a fire department auction, although a city ordinance did not prohibit the practice at the time.

Last May, the city implemented an ordinance prohibiting the practice.

Later that month, Zuniga, a 35-year department veteran, filed a lawsuit in state District Court, arguing the city did not have grounds to demote him.

In the suit, Zuniga, 59, also claims age discrimination, arguing De La Rosa replaced him with Esparza, who is more than 10 years younger and less experienced.

As a result, Zuniga, filed a complaint with the Texas Workforce Commission’s Division of Civil Rights.

The lawsuit argues the city retaliated against Zuniga when Esparza sent a document to Texas Commission of Law Enforcement, falsely stating Zuniga was “dishonorably discharged” from his position.

Esparza has said he erroneously sent the document to the state.

Long hiring process

In June, De La Rosa began meeting with commissioners to review candidates to replace Zuniga, who is serving as a captain in the department.

The top job, which offers a salary starting at $60,000, requires a bachelor’s degree, preferably in fire services, fire administration, public or business administration, management or a related field.

Since November, the city has been advertising for the job on its website and with the Texas Municipal League.