MERCEDES — Police Chief Olga Maldonado announced her retirement from the Mercedes Police Department, effective Tuesday.
The announcement came amid a swirl of rumors that the chief has recently faced disciplinary action and had been suspended. Mercedes City Manager Sergio Zavala refuted those rumors at city hall last Wednesday.
“I will confirm that she was not suspended,” Zavala said. “I did get a letter that she chose to retire and her last day is on the 18th (of June).”
Zavala declined to discuss whether the chief had otherwise been disciplined. “I don’t talk about disciplinary issues, especially with the press or media,” suggesting further inquiries be submitted via open records requests.
With the pending retirement of the chief, day-to-day operations of the police department would normally fall to the highest-ranking officer until a new chief can be selected; however, that position is now vacant, as well, the city manager said.
The next highest-ranking officer, Capt. Eduardo “Eddie” Treviño, also submitted his resignation, effective Tuesday, Zavala said.
As such, oversight of the department will likely go to Assistant City Manager Dago Chavez, who is a licensed peace officer, Zavala said.
“Mr. Chavez isn’t a rookie, either. Mr. Chavez is a well-qualified law enforcement officer himself,” he said.
“He knows what to do.”
The uncertainty regarding the police department’s leadership led a handful of residents to hold a demonstration outside city hall last Wednesday to demand answers. Among their number was Jose Gomez, who on June 8 defeated incumbent Rubén “Chano” Guajardo in a runoff election for Place 4 on the Mercedes City Commission.
Gomez was sworn into office yesterday.
“I’m out here ‘cause I’m concerned over the suspension of the police chief,” Gomez said. “She is the top law enforcement for the city … but, if she’s been suspended, for what reasons? How serious is it?” he said.
Nearby, two women held neon-colored poster boards bearing questions for the city’s leadership. “Community NEEDS Justice and Answers!” read one poster.
Gomez submitted an open records request a week before the news of Maldonado’s retirement broke, seeking information regarding whether the chief had been suspended or disciplined in any way. The city had yet to get back to him as of last week, pending a review of his request by the city attorney, Gomez said.
In a face-to-face meeting with the city manager and assistant city manager last Tuesday, Gomez again asked about Maldonado. “I brought up the question, and I got the runaround,” he said.
Numerous messages left with the chief went unreturned last week. Nor could she be reached in person at the police department.
Meanwhile, the city manager said he didn’t think the pending departures of the police department’s two highest officials would have an impact on public safety. “It’s not. I don’t think it is,” Zavala said.
Former Commissioner Rubén “Chano” Guajardo agreed, citing the experience of the remaining officers. “As far as concern for our public safety, absolutely not, ma’am,” Guajardo said last Wednesday evening.” We have some really well-experienced officers within our department.”
For Gomez, the lack of transparency regarding the state of the department warrants concern. “We haven’t had a spokesperson come out and say anything. That is wrong. … To me, that’s concealing information from the public,” Gomez said.
“We need peace of mind — assurance that we are a safe city,” he added a moment later.
Chief Maldonado began her tenure at the department as a records clerk in 1987. She became a law enforcement trailblazer in 2004 when she became one of the first female police chiefs in the Rio Grande Valley.
Guajardo spoke highly of her and Capt. Treviño’s community-based approach to law enforcement. “They had a really open door policy,” he said.
Guajardo, who learned of Maldonado’s resignation early last Wednesday, added that the commission had not recently been made aware of any performance issues regarding the chief. Indeed, he recalled Zavala commenting that Maldonado’s last performance review had been positive. “There was no voice of concern in his town at that particular point in time,” Guajardo said, adding that the conversation had occurred several months ago.
But, the city manager said last week he conducts staff evaluations in June, and had, in fact, conducted them the week prior.
“I did do hers, as well as others,” Zavala said.
Guajardo said the city manager had not brought up staff evaluations at recent commission meetings, but added that Zavala is not obligated to share such information with the commission.
“Under the city charter, ma’am, please understand that the city manager has any and all authority over all personnel matters,” Guajardo said.
“In essence, ma’am, he doesn’t even have to bring it to our attention.”
However, at a May 21 meeting, the commission learned that several vehicles seized by the police department had remained impounded well beyond the 90-day limit outlined in department policy. In some cases, vehicles had languished in the impound lot for years.
And at a June 4 meeting, the commission was set to discuss an “interlocal agreement to ensure compliance with statutory and procedural guidelines related to public safety and law enforcement procedures” during executive session, the agenda read.
Newly elected Place 2 Commissioner Leonel Benavidez alluded to issues brought up to the commission last month. “Policy violations in the police department were made public on May 21 in the city’s open meeting,” Benavidez said late Wednesday, adding that the issues had persisted for years.
“As a result, I inquired from the city manager on an update and I was informed that there was disciplinary action taken by him the police chief, Olga Maldonado,” he said.