MERCEDES — Chaos erupted even before the Mercedes City Commission meeting could begin here Tuesday evening.
As dozens of residents filed into the legislative chamber ahead of two hotly anticipated agenda items to censure and remove freshman Commissioner Leonel Benavidez from office, dozens more were physically barred from entering the public building.
— Dina (@PhotogDina) September 17, 2019
Uniformed and plainclothes officers barred the three entrances to the building, physically blocking residents and some members of the media from entering ahead of the meeting after the fire chief declared that the chamber was filled to capacity.
A pair of journalists from ABC affiliate KRGV were told only one of them could enter the building, while Sydney Hernandez, a reporter of CBS affiliate KGBT, could be seen at the western entrance to the building unable to enter until seconds before the meeting began.
Meanwhile, as the chief of police and other officers attempted to keep the three sets of doors closed, pandemonium broke out inside the legislative chamber.
Commissioner Jose Gomez, who had been the first elected official to arrive and take his seat for the meeting, was seen in the hallway as the sound of yelling came from down the hall. Asked what happened, he said, “It’s chaos in there!”
Gomez would not return to the legislative chamber for the remainder of the evening. Commissioner Cristella “Cris” De Leon Hernandez, who had arrived early as well, also left the chamber during the ruckus and did not return.
Inside the chamber, multiple officers were attempting to restrain two women and one man, who were screaming. Some residents, agog, clamored for their release, while others stood silently watching.
The younger woman screamed for her mother and said she was being physically hurt. The older woman, Velda Garcia, was the same woman police officers tried to ask to leave during a Sept. 3 meeting when she sat quietly video recording that meeting.
According to a Facebook Live video hosted by the Mercedes Enterprise, the situation escalated when the man walked into the chamber accusing City Attorney Anthony Troiani of having pushed him when the attorney had tried to enter the doors on the north side of the building.
Just moments before, residents who were being blockaded at that entrance had tried to keep the city attorney from entering the building. Several officers, including the police chief, were eventually able to get Troiani past the small crowd and into the building.
“They let the attorney in after they said it was over occupancy,” the man said loudly. “He was outside. He pushed against me,” he said, before adding an expletive in Spanish, the video shows.
Troiani asked the man if he had been impeding the attorney’s progress into the building, adding, “Nobody put any hands on anybody.”
A woman whom bystanders later identified as the man’s sister, addressed the city attorney, saying “Don’t push him!”
At that, Mayor Henry Hinojosa asked for quiet, warning the pair that they would be removed from the chamber otherwise. They had begun to take their seats when officers approached to remove them from the chamber, at which point the brief struggle between them, resident Velda Garcia, and multiple officers ensued.
Later, once the meeting officially convened, resident Dalia Peña approached the podium to make a public comment about the police chief, whom Commissioner Benavidez is accused of calling a “rookie” and who has delivered a sworn affidavit against the embattled commissioner.
Peña urged the commission and residents to “Google” the police chief’s name. “You’d be surprised what you’re gonna find,” she said before leaving the podium a moment later.
However, as she walked out of the chamber, she issued one last epithet, saying, “You’re gonna be surprised we hired a drunk. DWI hit and run,” she said.
When she returned a moment later to retrieve her purse, officers restricted her from re-entering the chamber, instead placing her in handcuffs and leading her away.
Peña could be heard saying repeatedly that she was just trying to retrieve her purse before leaving and that she had done nothing wrong.
Moments after being removed from the building, yelling could be heard coming from outside city hall, where numerous residents remained, unable to enter the meeting.
County court records show that a March 1994 DWI charge for a defendant named Dagoberto Chavez Jr. was dismissed “in the interest of justice” in November 1997.
TRO HALTS ACTION
With the absence of Commissioners Gomez and Hernandez, and due to a temporary restraining order handed to Troiani by Commissioner Benavidez, the commission tabled discussion of agenda items 7 and 8, which called for the censure and removal, respectively, of Benavidez.
Benavidez, through his attorney, Francisco J. Rodriguez, filed for the TRO in the 464th state District Court Tuesday morning to halt the commission from being able to censure or remove him. It was granted less than two hours later, court records show.
Benavidez is facing potential removal after a pair of complaints was brought forward in a Sept. 3 city commission meeting. The first came from Interim City Secretary Joselynn Castillo, who alleges Benavidez made a hand gesture which she interpreted to mean “shut my mouth.”
The second complaint came via a sworn affidavit by former Mercedes police officer Marcelo Garcia, who alleged that Benavidez called the police chief a “rookie.” Garcia also alleged Benavidez had said “Chief Chavez is not qualified to be chief of police.”
The city’s charter contains several prohibitions that can result in forfeiture of office, including that members of the commission cannot give orders to city employees.
Benavidez has, in part, denied the allegations. However, according to Benavidez’s lawsuit — which names the city and mayor as defendants — the police chief himself has since made a sworn statement alleging wrongdoing by the city commissioner.
In his statement, dated Sept. 10, Chavez writes, “Commissioner Benavidez instructed me to look into several incidents, one of which involved his brother Sammy Benavidez,” referring to a police investigation.
According to Chavez, the conversation occurred in May, before he was named police chief.
Benavidez alleges that the trio of complaints against him are political retaliation. “The Defendant Hinojosa is a political enemy of the Plaintiff and for political or retaliatory reasons is seeking to censure the Plaintiff and remove him from office…” the suit reads.
The suit alleges that the city is acting in violation of the city charter and outside its powers as a governing body. The suit also alleges that the city has violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by insufficiently describing the two agenda items regarding Benavidez.
Finally, Benavidez’s suit argues that he is protected via the Texas Whistleblower Act.
Both the mayor and city attorney declined to comment.
The two sides will meet in court for an injunction hearing on Sept. 30.