Temporary setback: Mercedes recall effort hits snag

Commissioner Leonel Benavidez, second from left on the dais, addresses complaints lodged against him during a Mercedes City Commission meeting Tuesday. (Dina Arévalo | darevalo@mvtcnews.com)

MERCEDES — An effort by citizen activists to recall two members of the Mercedes City Commission hit a snag here last Friday after the city rejected the petition and its more than 500 signatures.

According to city leaders, the petition — spearheaded by community activist Israel Coronado — failed to meet several requirements outlined by state election law; however, Coronado contends the petition drive satisfies the requirements of the Mercedes city charter.

“ It was reviewed. There was some things that were out of order and the letter was generated from the city of Mercedes to … Mr. Coronado who filed it,” Mercedes City Manager Sergio Zavala said, referring to a letter that had been sent to Coronado to notify him of the petition’s rejection.

Coronado said he received the letter signed by interim City Secretary Joselynn Castillo via certified mail Friday morning, but was perplexed by the vagueness of the document, which contained only two sentences to explain that the recall petition effort had been found “insufficient.”

“ The petition as submitted does not meet the requirements of Tex. Election Code and the provisions set out in the Charter of the City of Mercedes,” the letter read, without listing any citations as to what, specifically, made the recall effort insufficient.

“ It didn’t even have the process as to which I could actually make this petition valid,” Coronado said via phone. “And according to the city charter, she should have given me that information.”

As a result, Coronado, his wife, and two local residents, Velda Garcia and Dalia Peña — who were arrested during a raucous September city commission meeting — paid a visit to the city secretary that morning demanding to know how the petition was insufficient and what they could do to remedy the issues.

The group broadcast a portion of the encounter live via Facebook. The video shows at least two uniformed Mercedes police officers standing watch as the group — crowded into the vestibule of the city secretary’s office — press Castillo for information as she remains seated at her desk several feet away.

Coronado implored Castillo to consider the motivation behind her actions, saying her responsibilities lie with the residents of Mercedes, and not any one faction of its city commission. It was a point he reiterated to The Crier.

“ I reminded the city secretary of this: that she does not represent the mayor or the mayor pro-tem, whom we are trying to remove. She represents the 500 people that are signing this petition,” Coronado said.

“ That is beyond disconcerting because now that puts her in a position where it is evident that she is playing politics,” he added a moment later.

However, the city manager downplayed the involvement of politics in the petition’s rejection. “I think it’s a certain right of the citizens if they desire to reconsider voting for an elected official, then they do have the right to do that,” Zavala said of the people’s rights to demand a recall.

“ It has to be legal and in order. And if it’s that way, great, let’s move forward,” he added.

As to whether the rejection notice should have spelled out the petition’s deficiencies, however, the city manager laid that responsibility at the hands of those attempting the recall, saying they should confer with someone who has knowledge of the recall process.

“ Before you send it in, make sure that it’s complete. And if I’m not quite sure it’s complete, then consult with another,” Zavala said.

Coronado insists he and others studied the city’s charter closely regarding the recall process and said neither he nor his supporters have given up their effort to remove Mayor Henry Hinojosa and Commissioner Leo Villarreal.

After much discussion with Castillo, the group was able to retrieve the myriad papers filled with residents’ signatures. They plan on amending the forms to include the signatories’ dates of birth and voter registration numbers, as well as the dates they signed the petition.

According to the city charter, the group has 10 days to submit the supplemental information. “We’re not giving up. And this is just the beginning,” Coronado said, adding that the group remains committed to using the petition process to illustrate the proper way to remove an elected official.

Coronado started the recall effort after the majority on the commission attempted to begin the process to censure and remove freshman Commissioner Leonel Benavidez via a separate removal process outlined in the city charter.

Article II, Section 2.05 of the charter lays out a method by which the commission can remove one their own members, or cause that member to forfeit their office, should such a member be found to have violated a “prohibition.”

In September, the commission brought forth several allegations of wrongdoing against Benavidez — who ran on a platform of transparency and has since been highly critical of the majority’s decision-making.

Benavidez obtained a temporary restraining order and took the city to court to halt its ability to remove him from office, but was ultimately denied an injunction. That opened up the possibility for the city to try again to remove him.

Since the court date, however, the commission has yet to do so. A posted hearing to revisit the issue in mid-October was cancelled, and Zavala said the item was not set to be discussed during Tuesday’s regularly scheduled meeting.

“ I would need to confer with the mayor and others to see if he wants to revisit that. At this point, I think it was probably tabled or not acted on,” Zavala said. “So, it’s still there, but I’m not sure if they want to pursue that at this point. I would need to confer with them.”