HARLINGEN — City Commissioner Frank Puente is calling for an audit of the city’s organizational chart amid questions of favoritism at City Hall.
On Monday, City Manager Dan Serna denied the claim, stressing officials follow “a very thorough hiring process.”
Puente said questions surrounding hiring and promotions prompted his request for the internal audit.
“We’d like to evaluate the positions, who holds them, their qualifications, credentials and salaries, how long these positions have been open and who had them before,” he said. “This comes down to simple business. I want to justify the ends and the means.”
Puente said some employees have complained of favoritism in hiring and promotions.
“It’s very prevalent. This is the perception I’m getting from the community, staff and employees — current employees and past employees,” he said.
Puente said he questions whether officials have created positions, filling them with unqualified employees.
“There are positions out there that have been created or opened and salaries that I question. How do you justify an increase in pay overnight for some of these positions? If you’re going to give someone a $15,000 raise, you need to explain it,” he said. “Are there others who were looked over and why were they looked over?”
At City Hall, Serna denied the claims, describing “a very thorough hiring process for all our positions.”
“When positions become available, we get to the process of advertising. When they are professional-level positions, we advertise (with trade publications and the Texas Municipal League),” he said.
“Once we review applications, those applicants are screened by the human resources department. They are short-listed and sent to the department head looking to fill the positions, and they review that short list of applicants and schedule interviews with the top candidates. HR then schedules those interviews and those interviews are conducted by the department head and/or the city manager and HR,” Serna said.
Serna said the city conducts background checks on its qualified applicants.
City manager qualifications
Puente also questioned the city’s qualifications for its city manager’s job, which Serna took in late 2014.
“I want to review the qualifications because obviously they’ve changed,” he said.
Puente also questioned commissioners’ decision to give Serna a $45,000 pay increase in late 2018.
“I’m sure they had their reason for giving Dan a $45,000 increase,” Puente said.
Serna’s annual salary currently stands at $260,609, making him one of the highest-paid city managers in the Rio Grande Valley.
For critics of Mayor Chris Boswell’s administration, Serna’s big pay raise turned into a lightning rod.
Puente also questioned turnover in high-level positions including those of the city engineer and public works director.
Late last year in the finance department, Assistant Finance Director Sergio Villasana resigned to take McAllen’s top finance job — just as longtime Finance Director Elvia Treviño was announcing her retirement.
For months, Treviño, who is resigning as finance director at the end of the month, has been training Robert Rodriguez, the city’s new finance director, Puente said.
After Treviño announced her retirement late last year, Villasana resigned to take the finance director’s job in McAllen, leading her to train Rodriguez for her position.
“I’m concerned Harlingen is a revolving door for other cities,” Puente said. “Why aren’t we keeping them? There are reasons why they left. It all comes down to moral. They’re not happy — they don’t like the way they’ve been treated.”
Meanwhile, Puente, who took office last May, continues to call for the revision of Serna’s open-ended contract.
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 for “good cause” — 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.
Boswell has declined to comment on the contract, referring questions to City Attorney Ricardo Navarro.
Last 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.
Serna declined to comment on the contract’s details.
“I’m satisfied with my contract,” he said.