Donna fire chief resigns

DONNA — Fire Chief Cesario “Cesar” Araguz has resigned, effective last week, city officials confirmed here shortly after a special city council meeting last Tuesday.

“We have a resignation from him, effective today,” Donna City Manager Carlos Yerena said shortly after the meeting adjourned.

In an undated letter addressed to Yerena, Araguz announced his resignation and offered his thanks.

“Mr. Yerena, This letter is to officially announce my resignation from the Donna Fire Department, I thank you for giving me the opportunity to have worked here,” the letter reads.

Yerena said he didn’t know what prompted the chief’s sudden departure from the city, less than seven months after his hiring last fall.

“I don’t think I was expecting it,” Yerena said.

“Whatever decision he’s going to do for his future, I’m sure he’s got other stuff that he wanted to do.”

The city manager wasn’t the only one surprised by Araguz’s departure. Place 4 Councilman Eloy Avila Jr., too, expressed his surprise.

“I’m a little confused. I didn’t know anything about it,” Avila said after the meeting, adding that the council had only just learned of the resignation moments before.

“I was totally surprised about that. That’s why I wanted to know, what happened or what?” Avila said.

According to the agenda for the special meeting, the council was set to discuss the fire chief during executive session.

“Discussion regarding employment, evaluation, compensation and duties of Fire Chief,” the agenda reads.

Araguz was hired on Nov. 28, 2018. He previously served at Mission and McAllen fire departments.

A June 2015 post on the McAllen Fire Department Honor Guard Facebook page congratulated Araguz on his retirement after 22 years of service as a driver with that fire department.

But, other more recent posts on social media hinted that perhaps problems were brewing in Donna. One such post claimed the department was severely understaffed, with only four firefighters on the duty roster.

The city manager confirmed that number last Tuesday.

“We’re following the plan that we have, which is two … part-timers working from 8–5 and then from there, we’ve got two people working … til late. In other words, for the rest of the hours,” Yerena said.

Those four firefighters are paid firefighters, the city manager said.

He added that the crew is complemented by several volunteer firefighters, but could not provide the number of volunteers available.

Asked how those current staffing numbers affect public safety in a town of nearly 17,000 people, the city manager said things are “in good hands.”

“We’ve got good, trained volunteers and a good, trained contractual firefighters,” Yerena said. “So, I think we’re moving forward in the right direction.”

However, as recently as last month, the department’s staffing numbers were much higher.

Speaking after a May 14 council meeting, Araguz spoke of the department’s structure. “We’ve got 17 contractual, paid firefighters. They work either 8–5, 5–8 a.m., or 24-hour shifts on weekends,” Araguz said, adding that all 17 were paid.

“I’ve been trying to upgrade the department. When I first started, they were lacking a lot of stuff that they needed — bunker gear, uniforms and such, boots,” Araguz said then.

Last week, Yerena, too, mentioned the recent strides Araguz had spearheaded at the fire department.

It was at that May 14 meeting where several firefighters sat in the council chamber wearing new uniforms donated to Donna by the McAllen Fire Department.

And it was at that meeting when the council unanimously approved Araguz’s recommendations for a fire marshal and fire investigator, neither of which the city previously had.

Prior to the contract-based hiring of a fire marshal and investigator, the city had had to rely on the availability of the Hidalgo County fire marshal.

“He did some great things for us and we appreciate the time that he served. He moved the department forward and we’re going to continue to move forward,” Yerena said.

Part of moving forward will be appointing an interim fire chief, the city manager said before heading off to a meeting with a handful of firefighters who had stood waiting in a hallway while the council met in closed session.

“I’m just going to inform them we have a resignation from the fire chief and then the plan moving forward,” Yerena said.