Mercedes police Chief Dagoberto “Dago” Chavez has resigned his position, making him the second department head to announce his departure this week. The resignation goes into effect in two weeks.
“I would like to inform the Citizens of Mercedes that it has been my honor to have served as your Chief of Police,” Chavez wrote in a post on the police department’s Facebook page Thursday.
“With over 25 years dedicated to this profession, I have decided to venture in a new direction. This decision was one that has been contemplated for some time, but it is one that is in my best interest,” Chavez continued.
Mercedes City Manager Sergio Zavala, who announced his own resignation Tuesday, declined to comment on the chief’s pending departure, saying he does not comment on personnel issues. However, Zavala released a statement on the city’s Facebook page shortly after Chavez’s announcement.
The city will begin advertising for a new police chief Friday, Zavala wrote, adding that Assistant Police Chief Jose Macias will serve as interim chief once Chavez departs the city.
Zavala hired Chavez in 2019 to serve as assistant city manager. Based on his previous stints at the Mission Police Department and as an investigator with the state attorney general’s office, Zavala tasked Chavez with reviewing Mercedes’ public safety departments.
Just a few months into that position, Olga Maldonado, who had risen among the ranks from a clerk to Mercedes police chief, announced her retirement.
In her absence, Chavez served as interim police chief for a short time before Zavala elevated him to chief last summer. The city made it official during a well-attended swearing in ceremony on July 18, 2019.
Soon after taking the helm, Chavez took action on an issue that had long been plaguing the department: the dilapidated condition of the police department building.
With the structure deemed unfit for occupancy due to mold and plumbing issues, Chavez sought to temporarily house inmates at another jail while the department transferred its functions to the public works building.
In late August 2019, Mercedes entered into a contract with the Weslaco Police Department to house inmates at their jail at a rate of $54 per day. The arrangement was expected to last six to eight months, Weslaco police Chief Joel Rivera explained to the Weslaco City Commission in an Aug. 20, 2019 meeting.
But, even as Chavez began to implement improvements within the police department, it wasn’t long before tensions began to simmer between the chief and some members of the city commission — primarily, with then-newly elected Commissioners Leonel Benavidez and Jose Gomez.
The tensions only added to a roiling political turmoil that had been brewing between the commission majority — including then-Mayor Henry Hinojosa — and the two junior commissioners who had campaigned on promises to bring more accountability and transparency to the city’s leadership.
By September 2019, two city employees had filed complaints against Benavidez, alleging he had acted beyond his scope as a commissioner. One of those complaints, from Marcelo Garcia, who was then a police officer, alleged that Benavidez had called Chavez a “rookie” and questioned his qualifications to lead.
The city later promoted, then fired Garcia, which the man said during a public meeting “made (him) look bad in the eyes of our community.”
The commission majority then began moving to censure Benavidez for the complaints, eliciting strong reactions from local residents who showed up in force to a Sept. 17, 2019 meeting. As that meeting erupted into chaos, Chavez oversaw the removal and arrest of four residents.
By the time Benavidez took the city to court the following month, seeking an injunction against his removal from the commission, Chief Chavez had added his own complaint against the commissioner, alleging that Benavidez had tried to interfere in a police investigation.
And in February of this year, Commissioner Gomez began to wear a body camera after he said Chavez accused him of trying to break into the old police department after he had asked to see the building’s poor condition for himself.
At the time, Chavez admitted he had taken the commissioner on a tour of the building, adding that Gomez “shouldn’t have any fear for his own safety, especially from the police department.”
However, Chavez did not respond to messages seeking comment Thursday.
More than a year after vacating the building, however — and with no timeline or budget yet set on the construction of a new jail — Mercedes continues to house its prisoners in Weslaco. But there, too, problems have emerged.
On Oct. 23, Rivera, Weslaco’s police chief, sent Chavez a letter notifying him that Weslaco would be exercising its 60-day notice of termination of the contract. The Weslaco City Commission approved the termination on Nov. 3.
Rivera confirmed Thursday that Weslaco will stop housing Mercedes inmates on Jan. 4.
Though Rivera’s letter does not mention a reason for the contract termination, Weslaco City Manager Mike Perez confirmed in early November that Mercedes had at one point fallen behind — and ultimately caught up — in its payment of invoices.
But details regarding Mercedes’ payments to Weslaco are things not even Mercedes’ own commissioners have knowledge of.
Both Gomez and Benavidez said they have been kept in the dark about the police department, even after the commission and former Mayor Henry Hinojosa directed the city manager to provide them with information on why Weslaco terminated the contract.
The opaqueness they feel they’ve received over the last year from the city’s two top administrators have reduced their confidence in Chavez’s and Zavala’s abilities to lead. It’s why Gomez and Benavidez both say they are glad the two men have announced their resignations.
“It’s no secret that there are issues and there have been issues in these two very departments we’re seeing change in,” Benavidez said Thursday.
“To me, because of all the stuff that has been going on, it’s a good thing,” Gomez said of Chavez’s resignation. “To me, anyway. I’m just one commissioner and that’s how I feel,” he said.
Both also expressed reservations about Zavala naming a new police chief before he, himself, leaves on Jan. 1.
“I have expressed to our city manager, who recently resigned, that I do not agree with him hiring high level department positions when he’s resigned,” Benavidez said — in part because the city manager has yet to respond to the commission’s questions regarding the police department.
Gomez was more direct in his criticism. Though he acknowledges that the city charter empowers the city manager to make all hiring decisions, Gomez said, “It’s very close to him leaving. And honestly, I cannot trust him. I cannot.”
The two commissioners said they are hopeful that the departures, combined with the two new incoming commissioners, as well as the installation of a new mayor in Oscar Montoya, will help Mercedes move forward.
“When the city’s residents vote for change, that has an effect in the way the city is ran (sic). This shows exactly that,” Benavidez said.
“All I can say is it’s a new day, a new beginning with a new commission, a new mayor. And we all, we all ran on transparency and accountability,” Gomez said.
For his part, Montoya — who was sworn in as mayor on Nov. 13 — wished both Chavez and Zavala well.
“We wish them both well and we’ll let the process take its course,” Montoya said, adding that both men are leaving the city on good terms.
“The citizens of Mercedes need to know that they’re gonna be just fine. That this is just part of the process and they’re gonna be fine,” he said.