Questions loom in Vargas case Carman opposes judge’s order

SAN BENITO — Superintendent Nate Carman has argued against a judge’s plan to appoint a replacement for school board President Michael Vargas, who was ordered suspended from office in what’s being called a precedent-setting case.

In an affidavit, Carman states San Benito residents should appoint the replacement — not state District Judge Manuel Bañales, who ordered Vargas be suspended Friday on the grounds of intoxication about six months after his arrest for driving while intoxicated.

“It is inappropriate for a judge to appoint a replacement board member to the SBCISD board of trustees,” Carman states in the affidavit signed Dec. 11.

Carman cites Texas Education Code 11.060, stating “the elected officials who represent all of the voting citizens of SBCISD have the right to appoint a replacement trustee and not a judge acting on a petition signed by four SBCISD community members.”

School board member Victor Rosas questioned Bañales’ criteria in selecting Vargas’ replacement.

“Does he know the people in San Benito?” Rosas asked.

Friday in 107th state District Court, Bañales ordered Vargas suspended pending an April trial in which a jury is expected to decide whether he should be removed from office on the grounds of intoxication.

Meanwhile, Bañales is expected to outline steps San Benito residents should take to apply to temporarily replace Vargas pending the April 13 trial, Cameron County interim District Clerk Elvira Ortiz said yesterday.

On Friday, Bañales instructed the district clerk’s office to publish a notice seeking San Benito residents interested in applying to replace Vargas at least until the trial.

Ortiz said she was waiting for Bañales to outline steps residents here can take to apply.

Precedent-setting case

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

Under Texas Government Code Chapter 87, the rarely applied law allows residents to petition the court to remove elected officials from office on such grounds as intoxication.

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

During Friday’s hearing, Jose Caso, an attorney representing Vargas, said he believes the case in which Bañales suspended Vargas after residents petitioned the court set a state precedent.

What if Vargas resigns?

Meanwhile, residents and board members questioned whether Vargas would resign from the board.

Yesterday, Vargas declined to disclose whether he’s considering resigning.

Vargas did not respond to telephone and email messages yesterday morning and mid afternoon requesting whether he planned to resign.

“I haven’t heard what he wants to do,” Rosas said.

If Vargas resigns, the court would close the petitioners’ case, Garcia, a realtor who petitioned for his removal, said yesterday after posing questions to Assistant District Attorney Edward Sandoval.

“If Mr. Vargas does indeed resign from the San Benito school board, then the action for the removal of Mr. Vargas will no longer be necessary as he is no longer an office holder and the authority of Judge Banales will be extinguished,” Sandoval stated in his response to Garcia.

Under a scenario in which Vargas resigns, school board members would appoint a replacement to fulfill his term expiring May 2021 or call an election to allow voters to elect a replacement.

Lopez said the board’s majority, which has supported Vargas, would likely select his replacement.

“If the board chooses to replace him, I hope the board gets a candidate that will work for the kids and the school district,” said Janie Lopez, the district’s former Guidance and Counseling coordinator who spearheaded the petition drive. “We need someone who will do the right thing and not take (political) sides.”

If Vargas resigns, Lopez said she believes the board should call an election to let voters elect his replacement.

“That way the public can vote someone in,” she said.

Meanwhile, Lopez criticized Carman for signing the affidavit which she believes supports Vargas while opposing his removal.

“It was shocking to see the superintendent submitting an affidavit supporting Vargas,” Lopez said. “The superintendent should have remained impartial. By supporting Vargas like that could be intimidating to employees. It sends a message that he’s representing a person — not the students and not the district.”

Carman denied the accusation.

In an email, Carman stated “my statements are factual in nature, not political.”

In his affidavit, Carman describes Vargas as an Ivy League university graduate with a graduate degree who has worked as a teacher and public school administrator.

“Mr. Vargas is highly qualified to serve as a school board trustee,” Carman states. “While serving on the SBCISD board of trustees, Mr. Vargas stayed abreast and served as a champion for SBCISD by serving in more regional, state and national-level boards and committees than any other SBCISD trustee during his tenure.”

“The forced removal of a board president mid-term would be detrimental to the governance of the board,” the affidavit states.

Rosas, board members Orlando Lopez and Janie Silva and Principals Olivia Flores and Manuela Lopez also signed affidavits.

DWI charge

The petitioners’ case isn’t the only one Vargas faces.

Last month 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 of 0.256 — over the legal limit of 0.08.

As a result, prosecutors are counting what records show as Vargas’ first drunken driving charge as his second DWI charge, District Attorney Luis Saenz said during an interview last 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 upheld a previous court order requiring 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.

During Friday’s hearing, Harlingen Police Officer Arnoldo Maldonado testified he arrested Vargas after finding him sleeping in his vehicle, whose engine was running while it stalled in the drive-through lane of a Taco Bell restaurant at 1518 N. Ed Carey Drive at about 2 a.m. July 5.

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.