MERCEDES — With a municipal election less than three months away, the political atmosphere here continues to crackle like static electricity waiting for a spark. And the disquiet that has plagued city commission meetings since last summer has become so great one elected official now feels he must wear a body camera — for his own protection — during his interactions with other city leaders.
“The body camera came about after a statement that the police chief made about me — that I was trying to break into the police department building,” Place 4 Mercedes City Commissioner Jose Gomez said during an interview Thursday afternoon.
“And I know that didn’t happen, but he claims to have officers that witnessed it,” Gomez said.
The commissioner said the accusation occurred while the commission — along with Police Chief Dagoberto “Dago” Chavez and City Manager Sergio Zavala — were in executive session in an early-December meeting.
Similarly, Gomez informed the commission of his intent to wear the body camera during executive session last Tuesday.
Gomez made a special point of emphasizing that both discussions occurred during executive session, which is subject to certain disclosure restrictions under the Texas Open Meetings Act. “There’s certain things we cannot (discuss), but there’s certain things we must. That’s the bottom line,” Gomez said, explaining why he was speaking about the allegation and his response to it.
“Because executive session is used as an excuse to move forward on things — a lot of things — the public needs to know. And I know my boundaries … but this is, this is serious,” he said.
Things came to a head during that December meeting, when Gomez first learned of the accusation, as well as a complaint filed against him by local resident, Romulo “Romo” Sanchez one day earlier.
In a Dec. 2 email — which Gomez said Sanchez sent to the city manager, police chief and city secretary Joselynn Castillo — Sanchez alleges Gomez was rude to him during a Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Sanchez claims the commissioner told him to, “GET BACK TO WORK!” and to “shut up,” a copy of the email reads.
Sanchez, who is a frequent attendee of city meetings, has been under contract to produce and edit videos of community events for the city since September 2019.
But it was the police chief’s accusation that day which became the greater cause for concern and ultimately prompted him to purchase the body camera, Gomez said.
Once he learned of the accusation, Gomez sent two written requests to the city manager, and a third to city attorney Anthony Troiani, seeking a written statement from the police chief regarding the time and date he had allegedly tried to force his way into a city building, as well as the names of the officers who had allegedly witnessed the incident.
The commissioner admitted he did indeed go to a city building late last year — to the Mercedes Police Department building — to seek a tour of the facility, which was deemed unfit to house prisoners last summer due to its poor physical condition. The city has since decided to move the police department to the public works building, which is in the process of being retrofitted for the task.
Gomez sent a text message to the city manager before arriving at the building, he said. Minutes later, Chief Chavez arrived and provided the commissioner a tour. “I saw what I wanted to see, and I thought that would be the end of it, right? I just wanted to see with my eyes what was wrong with the building,” Gomez said.
By the next commission meeting, Chavez was lobbing his allegation against Gomez, the commissioner said.
Now, he wants closure. The lack of response to his inquiries and the accusation itself have Gomez concerned about political retaliation, especially after witnessing what happened to his fellow commissioner, Leonel Benavidez, last fall.
Three city employees — including the police chief — lodged complaints in sworn affidavits against the freshman commissioner. In one, the city secretary accused Benavidez of making a hand gesture she interpreted to mean “shut my mouth.” In another, a police officer said the commissioner had referred to the newly-hired chief as a “rookie” and questioned his qualifications to lead the department.
And in the chief’s affidavit, which was filed just days before Benavidez took the city to court seeking an injunction to halt his potential ouster from the commission, Chavez claimed the commissioner had interfered with a police investigation involving Benavidez’s brother.
“That is when I thought, ‘Okay, they wanna do what they did to Benavidez,’” Gomez said. “You have two people making statements (against me) and now they’re finding grounds to get rid of me,” he said, adding later he feels wearing a body camera “is a safety feature.”
Reached at city hall Friday, Chavez confirmed he led the commissioner on a tour of the dilapidated police building at the commissioner’s request. As to whether officers saw Gomez trying to force his way in, the chief said simply, “I have no statements from any police officers that he actually tried to force himself in there.”
“(Gomez) shouldn’t have any fear for his safety, especially from the police department, so I don’t know where that comes from,” Chavez said when asked about the commissioner’s decision to wear a body camera.
“Again, I don’t know why he feels the need to wear a camera around police officers, or police chief, or anyone else. He’s a city commissioner; he’s welcome to the city buildings,” Chavez said.
For Gomez, the camera gives him some peace of mind, allowing him to “protect myself and protect the individual that is before me,” he said. Up until now, he has avoided one-on-one conversations with the city manager or police chief “because anything can happen,” he said.
Meanwhile, as Gomez attempts to mitigate his own concerns over the simmering political tensions, at least one of the people who filed a complaint against Commissioner Benavidez has come forward challenging the city’s narrative.
Marcelo Garcia, formerly a Mercedes police officer, took to the lectern Tuesday night during open forum to dispute the notion he had an issue with the commissioner. Instead, he said he had only been trying to follow department policies when he notified his superiors of an August conversation between himself and Benavidez.
“The affidavit was turned around and used as a complaint. I never filed a complaint, I filed information and nothing more,” Garcia said.
“My words were twisted and used against this particular commissioner without asking me or telling me what was gonna be done with it,” he said.
Garcia also took issue with his termination from the city, which followed soon on the heels of a promotion he received after making the affidavit. “It made me look bad in the eyes of our community because… (it) looks like I filed a complaint and I got rewarded for it,” he said.