Judge grants Vargas delay; Resets suspension hearing

Michael Vargas SBCISD Trustee

BROWNSVILLE — A judge has granted San Benito School Board President Michael Vargas’ request to postpone a hearing to determine if he should be temporarily suspended from office on the grounds of intoxication as a result of his arrest for driving while intoxicated.

In 107th state District Court, visiting Judge Manuel Bañales reset the hearing, originally set to be held yesterday, for Dec. 13.

In his request, Vargas, who works as the city of Pharr’s public affairs liaison, asked Bañales to reset the hearing because he was scheduled to attend an annual Alliance for I-69 Texas meeting in Houston yesterday.

“ Critical matters involving I-69 and particularly the 281/Expressway 83 overpass expansion project will be discussed at this meeting,” Vargas stated in his request.

“ This project is a critical project for the economy and transportation of the citizens of South Texas. Moreover, because this overpass serves as a hurricane evacuation route, matters involving the health and safety of the citizens of South Texas will be discussed at the meeting. Mr. Michael Vargas is the only representative from the city of Pharr that will be present at this critical meeting, where issues such as future funding will be discussed.”

Vargas stated he was “not seeking to unnecessarily delay the proceedings in this case but only asks for consideration to allow him to perform his duties as representative of the city of Pharr in an event that cannot be rescheduled.”

The case stems from residents’ petition requesting Vargas be removed from office as a result of his July 5 DWI charge.

Under Texas Government Code 87.015, the rarely applied law allows residents to petition the court to remove elected officials from office on such grounds as intoxication.

On Oct. 2, Lopez and residents Rosalinda Garcia, Ramon Santos and Oscar Medrano, a former school board member, filed the petition.

Lopez said Vargas’ arrest sends the wrong message to students who look up to the school board’s president as a role model.

As the board’s president, Vargas serves as the board’s leader and the district’s spokesman.

Earlier this month, Bañales set an April 13 trial to determine whether Vargas should be removed from the school board.

Meanwhile, Bañales set another hearing to decide whether Vargas should be temporarily suspended from the board pending his April trial.

Yesterday, Lopez said she and the petitioners would “hold Vargas accountable” until the newly set Dec. 13 hearing.

“ We just have to trust in the system and be patient,” she said. “We will continue to hold him accountable while he sits as president of the school board until the court hearing.”

Earlier this month, Cameron County District Attorney Luis Saenz, who has held office since 2013 after serving as district attorney in the 1990s, called cases stemming from residents’ petitions exceptionally rare.

However, the school district’s policy states residents can petition to remove board members from office on such grounds as intoxication.

The arrest

In their petition, the 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.

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

San Antonio police report

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

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

Upgraded DWI charge

The case marks the second Vargas faces as a result of his arrest.

Last week in Cameron County Court at Law No. 5, visiting Judge Leonel Alejandro set a Feb. 6 jury trial during an arraignment hearing stemming from Saenz’s decision to upgrade Vargas’ DWI charge from a Class B to a Class A misdemeanor based on his blood-alcohol level at the time of his arrest.

While the legal limit is 0.08 percent, tests show Vargas’ blood-alcohol level reached 0.15 percent.

As a result, prosecutors are counting what records show as Vargas’ first drunken driving charge as his second DWI charge, Saenz said during an interview earlier this month.

The upgraded charge boosts the offense’s potential penalty from six months in jail and a $2,000 fine to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine.

During the hearing, Alejandro granted Vargas’ request to waive arraignment.

Meanwhile, Alejandro upheld a previous court order requesting Vargas equip his vehicle with a breath alcohol ignition interlock device featuring a camera.

During an Oct. 1 hearing, Judge Estella Chavez Vazquez ordered Vargas to install the devise, which does 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.

According to a court document, Chavez Vasquez also prohibited Vargas from drinking alcohol or taking drugs before driving.

Vargas’ tenure

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.

fdelvalle@valleystar.com