Judge dismisses tax hike challenge

HARLINGEN — Former City Commissioner Robert Leftwich says he will appeal yesterday’s dismissal of his challenge to the city’s recent 4-cent tax hike.

In a hearing in 103rd state District Court, Judge Janet Leal dismissed Leftwich’s case, arguing she didn’t have grounds to hand down a ruling as Mayor Chris Boswell and City Manager Dan Serna sat in the courtroom.

Leftwich said he will appeal Leal’s decision to the Texas 13th Court of Appeals.

Before the hearing, City Attorney Ricardo Navarro filed “a comprehensive set of documents to show the court what steps the city took to adopt its tax rate and fiscal budget ordinances.”

“The court gave the lawyers for the parties a fair and open opportunity to present and explain their respective positions,” Navarro stated after the hearing. “We are convinced that the court properly granted the city’s jurisdictional plea and dismissed the case. If the plaintiff and his counsel choose to appeal, we would expect a similar outcome in the Court of Appeals, that is, an affirmation of the trial court’s ruling and dismissal of the appeal.”

However, Leftwich argued Leal didn’t allow him to present his evidence, including a city-recorded video he claims shows Boswell failed to give residents a chance to speak on the proposed tax hike before commissioners voted on the ordinance’s first reading Sept. 4.

“I’m disappointed in Judge Leal,” Leftwich said after the hearing. “She obviously had leeway to accept jurisdiction on the side of caution. The taxpayers of Harlingen did not get their day in court. That’s just a disservice to the taxpayers of Harlingen — no witnesses to be called and no evidence to be presented.”

Attorney Ron Lozano, representing Leftwich, said he believes politics influenced Leal’s decision to dismiss the case.

“I feel that politics is prevalent everywhere,” Lozano said after the hearing. “She killed the case without hearing a word of evidence.”

Leftwich’s case

The case stems from Leftwich’s request for a temporary restraining order voiding city commissioners’ vote on the first reading of an ordinance aimed at boosting the city’s property tax rate from about 58 cents to 63 cents per $100 valuation.

According to Leftwich’s lawsuit, Boswell violated a new amendment to the Open Meetings Act requiring governments to give residents a chance to speak up before issues go to a vote.

House Bill 2840, filed by state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, became law Sept. 1.

In his lawsuit, Leftwich claims Boswell failed to give him a chance to speak out before commissioners cast their vote on the first reading of the ordinance calling for a tax increase Sept. 4.

Meanwhile, Boswell has argued he gave residents a chance to speak up before commissioners voted on the ordinance’s first reading.

Attorneys’ arguments

During yesterday’s hearing, attorney Robert Drinkard, who works with Navarro’s law firm, argued city officials gave Leftwich a chance to speak before commissioners voted on the ordinance’s first reading but he didn’t take the opportunity.

Drinkard, who described the case as “one man’s frivolous crusade to be a monkey wrench,” argued officials regularly allow residents to speak out on issues during commission meetings.

“If you raise your hand or go to the podium, they’re going to let you speak,” Drinkard told Leal.

Drinkard argued the new amendment to the Open Meetings Act doesn’t specify actions officials should take to signal their recognition of residents who intend to speak on issues.

“The statute is brand new,” he told Leal. “There’s no clarification as to what a person has to do.”

Meanwhile, Lozano argued officials failed to give residents an opportunity to speak up before commissioners voted on the ordinance’s first reading.

“The actual time is before or prior to the vote,” Lozano told Leal.

Lozano said officials didn’t give Leftwich the opportunity to speak out although he followed city protocol overseeing the meetings’ public comment periods.

“He did follow reasonable rules,” Lozano said, referring to Leftwich. “He signed up for public comment.”

Drinkard also argued Leftwich spoke before the commissioners voted on the ordinance’s second reading during a Sept. 17 meeting.

fdelvalle@valleystar.com