Mercedes commissioners, mayor clash over emergency order

The city of Mercedes’ COVID-19 emergency declaration expired last week after a disagreement between the mayor and two commissioners resulted in a 2-2 deadlock vote during an emergency meeting Friday.

Residents must still abide by regulations and social restrictions outlined in emergency orders issued by Hidalgo County and the governor’s office.

There was only one actionable item on the agenda for the meeting, which lasted just four-and-a-half minutes: voting on the seven-day extension of the city’s emergency order, including amendments added to the order following the relaxing of restrictions as outlined in Gov. Greg Abbott’s Executive Order GA-23.

Trouble arose when Commissioner Leonel Benavidez attempted to open the item for discussion before the commissioners voted on it. “Mayor, I make a motion to remove as action and place as discussion,” Benavidez said.

“(I) spoke with legal and TML — we can make that motion according to Robert’s Rules of Order,” the commissioner said.

But Mayor Henry Hinojosa refuted that assertion, saying the commission is not bound by the parliamentary procedures outlined in Robert’s Rules of Order, further adding that the commission’s only task Friday was to approve or not approve the extension of the order.

“Well, we don’t follow Robert’s Rules of Order,” Hinojosa said. “This is something that the mayor and the mayor only can extend this (unintelligible). It only requires the commission to extend the date, but there’s no discussion on this.”

However, the city charter states in Section 2.11(B) that commission meetings should follow the parliamentary rules. “…In lieu of adopted rules by the City Commission, the City Commission shall conduct its meeting in accordance with the latest edition (of) Robert’s Rules of Order,” the charter reads, in part.

It’s something City Attorney Anthony Troiani confirmed during the meeting. Troiani disputed, however, Benavidez’s ability to open discussion on the agenda item, saying, “Your voice is your vote,” unless the commissioner’s request to speak received formal recognition from the mayor.

“If you haven’t been acknowledged by the chair, then you simply have an action item and the chair runs the meeting,” Troiani said.

With that, the mayor again called for a motion to approve the extension of the emergency declaration. Commissioner Leo Villarreal obliged, seconded by the mayor himself, before the vote failed 2 to 2.

Commissioners Benavidez and Jose Gomez voted against it, and Commissioner Cris Hernandez was not present at the meeting.

Afterward, the city issued a public notice — published on the city’s website and in a Facebook post — addressing the vote, and the mayor’s legal authority to declare local states of disaster.

The public notice also asserts that commissioners cannot alter the language of the mayor’s emergency orders. “The preceding provisions does not empower a City Commissioner to amend, adjust, supplement, or subtract any verbiage from a Mayor’s Declaratory Disaster Order,” the public notice reads.

However, the statute does not explicitly prohibit such action.

“A declaration of local disaster may not be continued or renewed for a period of more than seven days except with the consent of the governing body of the political subdivision,” the statute reads, in part.

Asked afterward what it was he wanted to discuss, Benavidez said he hoped to clear up some inconsistencies between the city’s emergency declaration and the governor’s updated executive order. Both documents outline loosening social restrictions as the state moves to reopen more sections of the economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A draft version of the Mercedes order outlined, among other things, guidelines for businesses newly allowed to open under the relaxed restrictions. It also outlined the opening of more city services, including the library, access to city hall, and more.

“If we’re gonna have a public meeting, we want it to be that: a meeting for the public to inform the public,” Benavidez said Sunday. “And so, to have a meeting just to vote doesn’t do the public any good as far as edifying or informing them.”

Commissioner Jose Gomez had also hoped to discuss the emergency order during the meeting. Gomez criticized the silence imposed on him and Benavidez. “What I keep hearing is that the commission does not have power in this decision,” Gomez said during the meeting Friday.

“We’re just here as dummies, and that is not my position when I was voted in by our taxpayers,” he said.

The commissioner said the draft emergency order — which did contain substantial changes from an order the commission approved on May 22 — contained language that concerned him regarding the public’s ability to access city hall.

“No. 7 was one of my concerns,” Gomez said of an item in a draft of the failed emergency declaration regarding “local government operations, relating to permitting, recordation, and document-filing services.”

The order specified such services would only be “available by appointment or online. Walk-ins are discouraged and may be asked to return at a specific date and time to comply with CDC guidelines including social distancing,” a copy of the draft order reads.

Gomez worried that particular provision would impinge on the public’s right to access open records.

“To me, what they’re saying is we want to discourage you from coming to city hall,” Gomez said during a phone interview Sunday. “At any point, administration can say, ‘No, we cannot give you the information. You gotta come back some other time.”

Gomez was also critical of the mayor’s decision to not allow discussion during the meeting. “What was wrong with that? I mean, to me that’s transparency,” he said of his and Benavidez’s requests to be heard.

Hinojosa responded to questions about the commissioners’ criticisms via text message Sunday. He urged Mercedes residents to continue adhering to county and state orders until the commission can convene to take up the issue again.

In regard to Benavidez’ request to hold discussion during the meeting, Hinojosa said, “I don’t tolerate grandstanding. He knows that the only ones that issue these orders (are) the (governor) County Judges & Mayors.”

“The (commission) can’t add or delete content of order period,” the mayor continued.

Benavidez responded by saying his intentions had been to inform the public.

“For the mayor to try to twist that does not surprise me, because they have been doing that — as well as the city attorney has been twisting things — to get their agenda across,” he said.