Serna’s contract ignites concerns; Puente questions agreement terms

City Manager Dan Serna who served as Master of Ceremonies yesterday addressed the audience gathered for the Lon C. Hill Destination Park Ribbon Cutting Ceremony. He provided background on the park, the new features and facilities that will be added as well as the cost and funding. Maricela Rodriguez/Valley Morning Star

HARLINGEN — Five years after he took the job, City Manager Dan Serna’s contract is sparking questions.

Last week, City Commissioner Frank Puente said he and Commissioner Richard Uribe requested commissioners examine some of the contract’s terms during a closed-door meeting Wednesday.

But late Friday afternoon, Puente said he and Uribe pulled their plans to call for the review during the meeting.

“We decided to retract the action item regarding the discussion of his contract and decided to work together to discuss some of the current concerns — one of them being the contract itself,” Puente said.

Uribe declined comment Friday morning.

Puente, who took office last May, said some of the contract’s terms are raising concerns.

The contract, drafted under former City Attorney Rick Bilbie in November 2015, includes a clause requiring four commissioners’ votes along with the mayor’s consent to fire Serna — instead of three commissioners’ simple majority.

“In order to terminate the city manager for good cause, four out of five commission members must vote to terminate and the mayor must also concur in the decision to terminate for good cause,” the contract states.

Before Serna took office, three commissioners’ votes had led to the firing of city managers, Puente said.

“I want that clause taken out,” Puente said. “I think it should be three votes across the board. For the mayor to supersede four votes, let alone three, that’s a monarchy — a dictatorship. Why have commissioners if the mayor can swipe it away?”

While the City Charter doesn’t address the city manager’s termination, it states commissioners “shall appoint a city manager by a minimum of three affirmative votes.”

Mayor Chris Boswell declined comment on Serna’s contract.

Commissioners Michael Mezmar, Victor Leal and Ruben de la Rosa did not respond to messages requesting comment on the contract.

Open-ended contract

As an open-ended contract, the agreement doesn’t set Serna’s term of employment Puente said he wants to revise the contract to include employment terms.

“One of my concerns is the open-ended contract,” he said.

Job evaluation

Puente’s concerns come about two months after commissioners gave Serna a favorable job evaluation. That’s when he found out the contract doesn’t call for a written evaluation, Puente said.

“The city manager’s salary shall be annually reviewed by the Harlingen City Commission on the anniversary date of his appointment to the position of city manager in accordance with the city’s performance standards and evaluation criteria,” the contract states. “The review shall take into consideration the city manager’s performance, the duties and responsibilities carried out by the city manager and other relevant pay and benefit data.”

Puente said he wants to revise the contract to require a written evaluation of Serna’s job performance.

“I’d like to see annual evaluations — not just verbal ones,” he said. “I’m not comfortable with a verbal ‘you did a good job.’”

Salary lightening rod

Last November, commissioners gave Serna an “excellent review,” Boswell said at the time.

Meanwhile, Serna settled for the 2-percent pay increase the city gave all its employees, boosting his salary to $260,609.

The year before, commissioners gave him a $45,000 pay increase, pushing his annual salary to $255,500 with a monthly $1,000 car allowance.

The big raise shocked many residents. During city meetings, some residents have condemned commissioners’ decision to approve the big pay hike. Critics sometimes point out Serna draws one of highest salaries among the area’s top administrators despite lacking a college degree.

In the Rio Grande Valley, McAllen City Manager Roy Rodriguez, a former Harlingen city manager, stands as the highest-paid city manager, with an annual salary of $277,000, according a survey by the Texas City Management Association.

Last year, the survey listed Brownsville City Manager Noel Bernal’s salary at $225,000. Serna has pointed out the survey does not include information on many cities’ top administrative salaries.

Serna’s climb to the top

Despite the lack of a formal administrative education, Serna climbed the ranks for 28 years, serving as assistant city manager for external affairs before taking over as city manager.

A master electrician, Serna started with the city as a building inspector in 1990. A year later, he was working as a housing rehabilitation specialist with the community development department.

In 1996, Serna took the job of construction project coordinator.

From 1997 to 2005, he was working as a director overseeing environmental health and public buildings while managing and directing the daily operations of several city departments. In 2012, he was named assistant city manager for external services.