Trustee faces 2 court hearings

Judge to mull petition calling for Vargas’ removal

SAN BENITO — Nearly four months after his arrest on a driving while intoxicated charge, school board President Michael Vargas faces two court hearings today, including one in which a judge will consider a petition calling for his removal from office.

At 8:30 a.m., Vargas is expected to appear for a compliance hearing in Cameron County Court At Law No. 5 as a result of the Class B misdemeanor charge.

Earlier this month, Judge Estella Chavez Vasquez ordered Vargas install a breath alcohol ignition interlock device in his vehicle.

The device will not allow a vehicle’s engine to start if the motorist’s breath contains a blood-alcohol level greater than the legal limit of 0.08 percent.

During the hearing, Chavez Vasquez also granted Vargas a waiver of arraignment.

At 1:30 p.m. today, Vargas is expected to appear in 107th state District Court, where visiting Judge Manuel Bañales will consider residents’ petition to remove him from office.

On Oct. 2, residents Janie Lopez, Rosalinda Garcia, Ramon Santos and Oscar Medrano, a former school board member, filed the petition, requesting Vargas be removed from office for intoxication.

“According to the law, a board member can be removed for intoxication,” Lopez, the school district’s former Guidance and Counseling coordinator, said yesterday.

Lopez said Vargas’ arrest sends the wrong message to the students.

“The message it sends to kids is you don’t have consequences for your actions,” she said. “We teach kids to obey the rules in the classroom, we teach them to obey laws in the community and you have positive and negative consequences for your behavior. In this case, Vargas hasn’t received consequences so it teaches kids there are no consequences for your behavior.”

Petitioners to make their case

During the hearing, the petitioners, who plan to appear without an attorney, have to make their case in court, Elvira Ortiz, the county’s interim district clerk, said.

“They’re representing themselves,” Ortiz said. “They go before the court and they explain the petition — as to why they filed it.”

Will Vargas take the stand?

Vargas might take the witness stand, according to Bañales’ letter to the petitioners.

“Although not explicitly stated in the statute, due process may require that respondent (Vargas) have the opportunity to challenge or oppose the petitioners’ application for citation and service,” Bañales wrote. “Accordingly, the court will afford respondent a hearing to show cause why the citation should not issue and be served upon him.”

The arrest

In the petition, the four residents cite Vargas’ July 5 arrest in Harlingen on a driving while intoxicated charge.

The petitioners’ evidence includes a police car’s dash cam footage of his arrest.

On July 5, a Harlingen police officer arrested Vargas, 32, after finding him sleeping behind the wheel of his car outside a fast-food restaurant at 1518 N. Ed Carey Drive at about 2 a.m., according to a police report.

Later that day, Vargas, who was arraigned before Municipal Court Judge Arturo Saenz, was released from the city jail after posting $2,000 bail.

According to the police report, Vargas was “displaying red blood-shot eyes and slurred speech” before his arrest.

Vargas refused an officer’s request to perform a field sobriety test, the police report states.

San Antonio police report

The petition also cites a San Antonio police report in which Vargas was accused of being intoxicated and was alleged to have harassed former Arizona state Rep. Lydia Hernandez at a 2018 Mexican American School Board Members of America conference.

Vargas has dismissed the 2018 allegations as “politically motivated lies.”

Rare cases

In Cameron County, cases stemming from such petitions under Texas Government Code 87.015 are rarely filed, Ortiz said.

“They are not common at all,” she said. “They’re not filed that often.”

Records show petitioners filed two such cases in recent years, Ortiz said.

In 2012, she said, petitioners filed two cases requesting the court remove then-District Attorney Armando Villalobos from office.

In at least one case, petitioners accused Villalobos of incompetency and acts or omissions constituting official misconduct.

After hearing the cases, Bañales dismissed one case while then-Administrative Judge Rolando Olvera dismissed the other, Ortiz said.

“I don’t remember one being removed from office even though they filed a petition,” Ortiz, who has worked in the district clerk’s office for 32 years, said, referring to elected officials.

‘Last resort’

Lopez called her case “a last resort.”

In August, board members Angel Mendez and Mary Lou Garcia requested trustees remove Vargas as president as a result of his arrest.

However, the board’s majority re-elected Vargas to the president’s post.

“We felt our hands were tied. This was our last resort,” Lopez said. “This is not something we want to do but something we were forced to do because of the circumstances.”

Meanwhile, school board member Victor Rosas said the DWI charge surrounding Vargas “reflects” on the school district.

“It does reflect somewhat on the school but the school is moving forward,” Rosas said. “It is what it is. As far as the (cases’) outcome, I want to wait and see what happens.”

Vargas, who was elected to the school board’s Place 1 seat in May 2015, has served as the board’s president since May 2017.

Last year, he won re-election to the term expiring in 2021.