HARLINGEN — City Commissioner Richard Uribe met with Mayor Chris Boswell on Thursday to discuss concerns including City Manager Dan Serna’s contract, Commissioner Frank Puente said.
Puente and Uribe are questioning a clause in the contract that requires the votes of four commissioners, along with the mayor’s consent, in order to fire Serna for “good cause.”
Uribe could not be reached late Thursday afternoon, while Boswell did not respond to a message requesting comment.
“I think we’re obligated,” Puente said, referring to his request to revise the contract.
Before Serna took the job in late 2014, commissioners had fired city managers on three votes, Puente said.
“It almost seems over-protective,” he said of the contract’s requirement of four commissioners’ votes, along with the mayor’s consent, to fire Serna. “It’s how much protection they’re giving him and the super majority.”
Puente said he, Uribe and Commissioner Ruben de la Rosa are considering placing Serna on a performance evaluation plan to review his work over a six-month period.
Concerns include the city’s contract with South Texas Emergency Care Foundation, the EMS service which has served the city for years, Puente said.
Puente, who took office last May, said he wants to know whether city officials solicit bids before renewing the agency’s contract.
Concerns also include the city’s staffing.
Puente, who questions whether nepotism and favoritism play a role in hiring, said he wants an internal audit to determine whether positions are being properly filled.
“We want to review the credentials, qualifications and salaries,” he said.
Puente also questions whether money was pulled to fund a vacancy for a second assistant police chief.
For days, Serna’s contract has sparked concerns.
Puente primarily questions the contract’s termination clause.
“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,” states Serna’s contract, drafted under former City Attorney Rick Bilbie in November 2015.
According to the contract, “for good cause is defined as having been found to have committed misconduct after an investigation has been conducted. Misconduct is defined as violation of any criminal laws of a Class B (misdemeanor) or above.”
In a meeting Wednesday, former Commissioner Robert Leftwich, a longtime critic of Boswell’s administration, claimed the clause’s language defies logic.
During the meeting’s public comment period, Leftwich argued a simple majority of three commissioners should be required to fire a city manager who has committed a crime.
“The devil’s always in the details,” he told commissioners
Boswell has declined to comment on the contract, referring questions to City Attorney Ricardo Navarro.
Earlier this week, Navarro said the contract requires the votes of four commissioners, along with the major’s consent, to fire Serna for “good cause.”
However, Navarro said three commissioners could vote to fire Serna without good clause.
But that language does not appear in the contract, Puente said.
In the event commissioners fire Serna without good cause, the city would pay severance pay, Navarro said.
“If the Harlingen City Commission terminates the city manager in the absence of a ‘good cause finding,’ the city agrees to pay the city manager a lump sum payment equal to 12 months’ salary and benefits then in effect as severance pay, plus accrued and unused vacation time and sick time in accordance with this contract,” the agreement states.
As an open-ended agreement, the contract doesn’t include an expiration date.
“The city manager shall serve at the pleasure of the Harlingen elective commission,” the contract states.
Puente said he wants to revise the agreement to give Serna a one-year renewable contract.
The concerns come about two months after commissioners gave Serna what Boswell described as an “excellent” job evaluation.
Puente said that’s when he found out the contract doesn’t require a written evaluation.
“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.
During his November evaluation, Serna settled for the 2-percent pay increase the city gave all its employees, boosting his salary to $260,609.
Salary riles critics
Serna’s salary has become a lightning rod for some critics.
After his job evaluation in late 2018, commissioners gave Serna 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 the 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.