Former San Benito fire chief settles lawsuit

SAN BENITO — Former Fire Chief Raul Zuniga is richer than he was when he was demoted 1½ years ago.

Zuniga, a 35-year department veteran who served as fire chief from 2012 to 2017, has won a monetary settlement stemming from a lawsuit he filed against the city of San Benito last year.

But we don’t know how much richer he is — only he knows.

Last month, Zuniga, 60, agreed to the settlement in the lawsuit which charged he was wrongly demoted, in part as a result of age.

“I did win,” Zuniga said yesterday. “I got a monetary settlement. I settled — I didn’t want to go through the deal of the court. I’m happy with it. I’m glad it’s over.”

As part of an agreement, he said, the settlement barred him from disclosing its terms and amount.

Zuniga, who continues to serve as a captain, will retire May 31.

“I’m still working — still making a paycheck,” he said. “I’m not 100-percent happy with the 1½ years prior.”

City Manager Manuel De La Rosa and city spokeswoman Martha McClain did not respond to a request for comment on the settlement.

Meanwhile, the Texas Municipal League, the risk pool which insures the city, did not respond to a message requesting information on its cap on monetary settlements.

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.

Then in May 2018, the city approved an ordinance prohibiting the practice.

Later that month, Zuniga, filed a lawsuit in 357th state District Court, arguing the city did not have grounds to demote him.

In the suit, Zuniga, also charged age discrimination, arguing De La Rosa replaced him with Boris Esparza, a captain who was more than 10 years younger and less experienced.

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

Later, Esparza said he erroneously sent the document to the state.

Last October, the city replaced Esparza with Lt. Adan Gonzalez Jr. after Esparza requested to step down as interim chief.

Search continues

Meanwhile, the city continues to search for a fire chief to replace Zuniga.

“The fire chief position continues to be open,” De La Rosa stated yesterday.

Amid the city’s search, two prospective candidates found other jobs, City Commissioner Rick Guerra said.

“It’s not that we haven’t tried,” Guerra said. “We went through (requests for qualifications) and a couple of people were applying but at the last moment they decided not to.”

At that time, the job offering a salary starting at $60,000 required a bachelor’s degree, preferably in fire services, fire administration, public or business administration, management or a related field.

Guerra said some cities searching for fire chiefs offer higher pay.

“We’re trying to see what’s out there,” Guerra said.

Now, De La Rosa is revising the job’s advertisement.

“It will be reposted after I have made a few changes to the employment opportunity notice,” De La Rosa stated.