EDINBURG — The threat of removal from office yet hangs over the head of an embattled Mercedes city commissioner after a judge on Monday denied his request for an injunction against the city.
Commissioner Leonel Benavidez — who was first elected to office this May — filed for the temporary injunction after a series of complaints were lodged against him by city employees in mid-September.
In light of the complaints, the commission had been set to determine whether to censure Benavidez, and also whether the complaints warranted Benavidez forfeit his seat.
However, before any action could be taken, Benavidez was granted a temporary restraining order on Sept. 17 which enjoined the city from proceeding pending the outcome of Monday’s court hearing.
As several Mercedes residents looked on from the gallery, attorneys for both Benavidez and the city argued over the language of the Mercedes city charter, each interpreting the same section differently.
Mercedes’ attorney, J. Arnold Aguilar, argued that — according to the charter — the court has no jurisdiction to interfere until after the city commission makes its decision regarding Benavidez.
“He’s trying to do a premature ruling — get a premature ruling from the court — that we will violate his rights… if we have this meeting,” Aguilar said, adding that a Sept. 17 agenda item had only called for the setting of a hearing to determine Benavidez’s fate, not the hearing itself.
Benavidez’s attorney, Francisco Rodriguez, tried to argue that the city commissioner was dually protected — first, via the Whistleblowers Act related to information Benavidez had been attempting to uncover from public information requests he had submitted; and secondly, via legislative immunity for comments he made in a public meeting.
However, with both attorneys splitting hairs over the same section of the charter, and with the city’s response to the injunction application having been submitted shortly before the court convened, state District Judge Ysmael D. Fonseca called for a brief recess to review the filings.
When the proceeding resumed, Fonseca appeared to agree with the city, saying he couldn’t make any rulings about the city’s actions against Benavidez until the city actually took such action.
“Right now it’s just an agenda item. They’re gonna talk about it. They’ll decide what to do, but they haven’t made a decision,” the judge said.
“Obviously, there’s a decision to make a decision about what to decide later on. That’s where we are,” he said.
Five minutes later, Fonseca denied Benavidez’s request for an injunction without prejudice, leaving the door open for the commissioner to refile the case.
Speaking afterwards, Rodriguez said he wished the court had allowed the hearing to proceed. “I was sort of disappointed that we didn’t have a hearing, at least, so he could listen to all the facts and make a decision on that basis,” Rodriguez said, adding that he will continue to “aggressively” defend his client.
Both Aguilar, and Mercedes City Attorney Mark Sossi declined to speak after the proceeding.
Though the outcome was not what he had hoped, Commissioner Benavidez said he was nonetheless satisfied that the court records were now a matter of public record viewable by Mercedes residents.
“It sheds light on what’s going on in our community,” Benavidez said.
“This is public information now. It’s a stand against, you know, the … oppressive behavior on the part of the mayor,” he said.