RGC board spars over attorney fees

Rio Grande City school board members erupted in argument during a meeting Tuesday over payments to their current attorney.

The school board was set to consider terminating Baltazar Salazar, a Houston-based attorney, from his post as the school board attorney.

The motion failed as only board Trustee Daria Babineaux voted in favor of firing him. However, the vote came after much arguing between some of the board members, Salazar and Superintendent Vilma Garza.

It began when Babineaux prompted the school district’s chief financial officer, Diana Robles-Mendez, to make a presentation on how much Salazar was charging and what the school district had previously paid in legal fees.

But before Robles-Mendez could begin, Salazar cut in and accused Garza of altering and forging invoices he had submitted to the district.

Garza denied altering the invoice and said that the only change was to the cover page on which line items of disputed charges, and the final total that was being charged, were covered up.

She explained that the invoice he submitted included items that were not considered school district-related and said she followed the same procedure when the previous school board attorney had included similar items on his invoice.

Trustee Basilio “Bacho” Villarreal chastised Garza and argued that a bill should be presented to the board in its entirety, without modification. Upon presenting it to the board, Villarreal said, she could make a recommendation on whether the board should approve those payments or not.

“That has not been the practice for this school district,” Garza replied.

But Salazar would not let up.

“If the invoice is improper, you pick up the phone,” Salazar said. “Pick up the phone, you say ‘Mr. Salazar, I don’t agree with your hours. I don’t agree with what you charged us. Can you please send me a revised invoice; can you send me a different invoice?’”

“But you don’t go make a copy of my letterhead and my total and give a new total that I didn’t approve,” he said. “I didn’t invoice for that. I invoiced for X amount of dollars and… to me that’s called forgery.”

Garza, again, denied forging anything.

“I did not make copies of the invoice,” Garza said. “It was a cover letter that had items and I covered the total amount; I did not forge, I did not change, I only covered because the payment was going to be different than what you submitted.”

She explained that was part of the school’s district’s process because their business office staff does not see the detailed items on the invoice, only the totals.

Babineaux eventually pressed that they move forward with Robles-Mendez’s presentation which showed that Salazar was requesting a three-year contract through which he would be paid $18,000 per month, or $216,000 per year. Currently, he is billing the district $250 per hour.

Babineaux pointed out that the requested annual payment was more than Garza, their superintendent, was being paid and added that the district does not award contracts to legal counsel.

After more discussion on what Salazar had already billed the district, Babineaux made a motion to terminate him citing three reasons — the district couldn’t afford him, she alleged he didn’t always tell the truth and misrepresented information, and she said she thought they could “better spend our money.”

The motion was not seconded and failed.

Salazar then sought to clarify that he and Garza had already discussed the issue of the invoices and said he had believed they had reached an agreement.

“I do want to clarify something,” Garza began in response. “We did speak. I don’t think that Mr. Baltazar has proven to me that we can continue this relationship.”

She then noted that Salazar was the attorney for the school board, not the school district’s administration.

“So therefore I will seek another attorney for my school business,” she said.

Villarreal, one of the board trustees, reminded her that the hiring of another attorney needed to be approved by the board to which she said she understood.

When reached by phone on Wednesday, Salazar declined to comment on Tuesday’s meeting, stating that he had not been authorized to speak on the issue. Garza also said she could not comment on the issue.

Salazar was hired over the summer when the animosity between the two political factions of the school board prevented the board from holding a meeting at all.

The dispute even reached the courts, with Villarreal and Trustee Eduardo Ramirez — who was board president at the time — filing a temporary restraining order to keep the other board trustees from meeting.

When four of the board members, the majority, were finally able to hold a board meeting, they fired then-school board attorney Ruben Peña and replaced him with Salazar who was already representing the four board members in court over the restraining order.

Although Villarreal was not part of the faction that hired Salazar, he praised the attorney’s job performance.

“I can say, up to this point of what I have seen of Mr. Salazar, he’s basically been fair to everybody,” Villarreal said on Wednesday. “You want somebody to apply the law fairly, justly and honestly and to this point, I give him his credit, he’s done that on both sides of the aisle.”