After initially moving to cancel a contract to house Mercedes prisoners at the Weslaco city jail, Weslaco officials have reversed course and approved a new one-year deal with the Queen City.
The decision came by unanimous vote during a Weslaco City Commission meeting Tuesday evening. And it came after city staff expressed their renewed confidence in Mercedes — particularly in the changes at the highest levels of that city’s administration and police department.
But the discussion to give their neighbor another chance also brought to light some of the concerns that had initially prompted Weslaco to abruptly execute the jail contract’s exit clause in November.
“We worked some things out and clarified the MOU (memorandum of understanding) a little bit,” explained Weslaco Assistant Police Chief Robert Lopez, who stood in for police Chief Joel Rivera during the meeting.
“And Chief Rivera and Chief Macias came to an agreement that’s (this) MOU,” Lopez said, referring to Rivera and Mercedes’ new police Chief Jose Macias.
The new contract was effective Jan. 1 of this year and expires Jan. 1, 2022.
As with the original contract, Mercedes will continue to pay Weslaco $54 per prisoner, per day.
But the two police chiefs negotiated some changes to the contract terms, including how long Mercedes can keep individual prisoners at Weslaco and under what conditions the contract can be terminated or extended.
Now, Mercedes will be allowed to house individual prisoners for only up to 24 hours at a time.
When Weslaco canceled the jail contract on Nov. 3, they did so by giving Mercedes 60 days’ notice, as laid out by the terms of the initial contract. Weslaco later granted Mercedes a 30-day extension just as both the Mercedes city manager and police chief announced their departures from the city.
Under the terms of the new contract, either party can cancel the agreement with just 30 days’ notice. Contract extensions must be announced at least 60 days in advance.
The two chiefs also worked the kinks out of another issue — one that Weslaco officials said was the primary reason they had canceled the contract in the first place — payment for services.
Records obtained by The Monitor showed that, over the course of 16 months, Mercedes was consistently and repeatedly late in paying Weslaco to house its prisoners.
According to Lopez, that issue has now been resolved.
“We talked to the new chief. He took some steps to go ahead and facilitate electronic funds transfer with their finance department,” Lopez said.
Previously, Mercedes had allowed jail invoices to stack up for as long as four months before remitting payment to Weslaco.
“There was a little bit of communication issues — either with their (Mercedes’) finance department, (or) with the previous chief. We would send request for payment and some of it would get stuck at that office with the chief there, and then he would process it,” Lopez said of the payment delays.
The chief he referred to was Dagoberto “Dago” Chavez, who first came to Mercedes in 2019 as an assistant city manager tasked with using his law enforcement experience to review the police department and its policies.
Then-City Manager Sergio Zavala later elevated Chavez to the position of chief that summer, after the retirement of longtime Chief Olga Maldonado.
And it was Chavez who last fall prompted further concerns among Weslaco officials about continuing the jail contract.
“I don’t think the payment was the sole issue,” said Weslaco Mayor David Suarez.
“There was other issues that the chief (Rivera) brought up, and one of them was that they were staying there longer than 72 hours. You can’t hold them longer than that,” Suarez said, referring to how long prisoners can remain confined in police custody before being magistrated.
“They were taking longer to adjudicate … We couldn’t have that. We couldn’t condone that behavior,” Suarez added.
State law requires that a person in police custody be brought before a judge for magistration within 48 hours of their confinement. There, prisoners are informed of the charges against them and are potentially assessed bond.
The issue of overly long confinement is one that came up early in Chavez’s tenure as chief, when he oversaw the arrest of four Mercedes residents during a public meeting on Sept. 17, 2019.
The four were held in custody in Weslaco for more than two days before they were brought before Juan Alvarez, who serves as municipal judge for both cities.
It was a fact Alvarez made a point of noting.
“I just need to put — on the record — that this is beyond the 48 hours,” Alvarez said at the time.
Tuesday night, Suarez also alluded to other concerns Weslaco had had with the Mercedes Police Department under Chavez’s leadership.
“But there was issues, tambien, that the chief (Rivera) had brought up that, you know, ethical concerns, et cetera,” Suarez said.
“We were in dire straits when (Rivera) came in that he was recommending that he wanted out. I know the chief was a problem there. There had to have been other issues. Did they get corrected?” Suarez asked the assistant chief.
Lopez assured the mayor that Macias, Mercedes’ new police chief, is an experienced law enforcement officer with whom he has worked well in the past.
Reached for comment Wednesday, Macias said he was glad to learn Weslaco had chosen to continue to house Mercedes prisoners.
“It’s a big relief just to know that we’ve passed that obstacle that we had there for a while, that little hurdle,” Macias said of the new jail agreement.
The Mercedes City Commission has yet to ratify the contract.
But questions remain about how much Macias — who served as assistant police chief from April through December 2020 — knew of the issues within the Mercedes Police Department while Chavez was at the helm.
It was a concern voiced by the Weslaco mayor, who noted that Macias was appointed by the outgoing city manager first as interim chief, then chief last month.
“He was (Chavez’s) assistant. And he should have interceded, said something,” Suarez said of Macias.
Lopez, the assistant chief who spoke on behalf of the Weslaco police chief, said Macias had spoken about his ability to effect change while Chavez was chief.
“I talked to (Macias) and he said, ‘Well, at the end of his day, I was his assistant. So, whatever I pushed, it was up to him (Chavez),’” Lopez said.
It was a comment Macias echoed Wednesday, when he said he had been unaware of allegations that Mercedes prisoners had potentially been detained longer than allowed by law, and that if that had occurred, it may have been before he came aboard.
“No, I’m not familiar with that particular issue, to be honest with you. … But surely, if I had known about it, I would have addressed some of those issues, but I wasn’t the chief,” Macias said.
“As the director of the department, (Chavez) ultimately made those decisions for everyone in the building and everybody that works for him,” he added.
But Macias also reiterated his commitment to bring more transparency and accountability to the department now that he’s in charge. He pledged to maintain open lines of communication with both the media and the community — issues which plagued his predecessor.
“You’re welcome to ask me whatever you want, and if I can answer those things, I will,” Macias said.
With just days under his belt as chief, Macias said one of his first orders of business is conducting an audit of the department to see what’s working and what isn’t.
“That’s in the process,” he said.
“We gotta make sure that everything is done right and that we follow those laws that we are supposed to be upholding and to make sure that whatever we haven’t done in the past needs to be corrected.”
In the meantime, he remains optimistic about the future of Mercedes. Aside from Macias being named police chief, the city has also welcomed a new interim city manager, two new commissioners and a new mayor within the past three months.
“There’s a lot of things that are working really positive in the community. … Changes are coming,” Macias said.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the name of Weslaco Assistant Police Chief Robert Lopez.