With the city of Mercedes undergoing a spate of changes over the last few weeks — from turnover at the highest levels of city administration, to the welcoming of three newly elected officials — the Mercedes City Commission had one more change planned Tuesday: the appointment of a mayor pro-tem.
But what is normally a celebratory formality to choose a person to serve as second in command in the event of the mayor’s absence instead devolved into an argument reminiscent of the tensions seen during the previous administration.
It began with Place 2 Commissioner Leonel Benavidez nominating Place 4 Commissioner Jose Gomez to the position.
When the motion received no second, the Mayor Oscar Montoya then entertained a motion from Place 1 Commissioner Jacob Howell, who nominated Place 3 Commissioner Joe Martinez.
Both Howell and Martinez are newly elected, having won runoffs for their seats in early December.
But immediately, the move drew criticism from Benavidez and Gomez, who objected to Martinez seconding a nomination for himself.
Martinez had hesitated before seconding the nomination, asking the city attorney for an opinion on whether that was allowed.
Gomez, who had just declined to second Benavidez’s nomination of him, also questioned the attorney.
“The first one (motion) died,” said City Attorney Anthony Troiani.
“And I understand that you wouldn’t nominate yourself. And, but this is not a position that would have a pecuniary benefit to it. There’s nothing that I would see that would foreclose you from nominating yourself,” Troiani said, addressing Gomez.
With that, Benavidez and Gomez tried to revive the motion to name Gomez mayor pro-tem.
Their effort failed when the mayor reminded them that — just as he had not allowed Commissioner Howell to supersede their motion with his moments before — he would not allow the two commissioners to supersede the decision then pending before them.
The pair of commissioners responded by alleging the mayor was making selective decisions.
“Do you want to be equal to everyone, or do you want to let this slide?” Gomez asked the mayor.
“The only thing I hear is it’s a case-by-case scenario on this thing, as far as how you do it,” Benavidez added a moment later.
But the city charter dictates that the city commission follow the parliamentary procedures as laid out in Robert’s Rules of Order. Under those rules, a governing body cannot entertain a second motion for action when one is already pending on the floor.
Troiani outlined the process again, affirming that the mayor was correct in his following of the rules before adding that the position of mayor pro-tem is an honorary title.
“Right, a smaller title,” Howell said.
At that, Commissioner Benavidez again voiced his objection to his colleague’s comments.
“It’s not a small little position because … there is some latitude that is provided — if the mayor is not available — to the mayor pro-tem to conduct meetings or presentations,” Benavidez said.
Aside from being the chair of public meetings, the mayor acts as the chief executive officer of the city. And unique among the rest of the governing body, he is entitled to certain powers, such as declaring states of emergency.
In his absence, the mayor pro-tem becomes imbued with those powers.
In his objection, Benavidez said the two new commissioners don’t have the experience to take on such a role, then accused Howell of being all talk.
“Jacob, you want to talk a lot after the meetings and all, but I would give you a lot of the information you would present to the people during the elections. You obviously weren’t doing the research,” Benavidez said of Howell.
“Sir, sir please. At this moment this is turning ugly,” Howell responded to the ad hominem.
“Why are we taking cheap shots, sir?” he added.
As the pair began to talk over each other, Mayor Montoya began to rap a ceremonial gavel loudly on the table, calling for order.
But Benavidez persisted, accusing the three newest members of the commission of playing politics.
A moment later, Martinez, who had remained silent until that point, spoke. Martinez listed his experience on city boards as his bona fides to serve as mayor pro-tem before calling for more constructive discussion.
“I just want to say we’re not always going to agree, gentlemen. I get that, but I think we can come to a point where we can agree to disagree on certain items without throwing any type of stone, or anybody under the bus,” Martinez said.
After Martinez made his comments, the mayor asked Gomez if he would like to speak.
“When I hear this — you made this motion for yourself — I’m just going to tell you the way I feel, man,” Gomez said, addressing Martinez.
“That is selfish. That’s why I didn’t make the second to (Benavidez’s) motion, because I would have sounded like a selfish person,” he said.
“The way that we handle these situations, with the personal stuff and all that, I really don’t like it,” Montoya said after all the commissioners had had a chance to speak.
Montoya urged the commissioners to focus their comments on the items at hand, versus each other.
“In order to move Mercedes forward — which is our goal — we need to learn to take each item, work with them,” he said before calling the vote.
“We just need to move forward on the item and go from there. But again, I’m glad everybody got everything off their chest,” Montoya said.
The motion to appoint Martinez as mayor pro-tem passed 3-to-2, with Benavidez and Gomez voting against.