TRO stops city in its tracks

Freedom-of-speech ordinance?

 

 

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By G. Romero Wendorf

EDINBURG -- A new proposed ordinance that was on the City of Edinburg’s agenda waiting to get approved last Thursday afternoon during a regularly scheduled meeting ran into a judicial roadblock.

Shortly before the meeting was set to convene, Mayor Richard Garcia was presented with a temporary restraining order (TRO) signed by state District Court Judge Roberto “Bobby” Flores, blocking the city council from discussing the proposed ordinance and voting on it.

Critics of the proposed ordinance call it an attack on “freedom of speech,” while the mayor describes it as a return to civility in city council chambers.

A hearing is scheduled in Flores’s 139th District Court next Tuesday at 1:30 where the city will presumably argue why the lawsuit tied to the restraining order has no merit and why the city should be allowed to go about its regular business.

The Edinburg City Council held a special meeting Monday at noon, during which the council voted 3-2 to engage the outside legal services of McAllen-based law firm Kittleman Thomas as opposed to assigning the city’s defense to City Attorney “Rick” Palacios.

On the plaintiffs’ original application for the TRO, they argued that if the ordinance is passed, they will “suffer irreparable harm if (the city) is not restrained immediately because they will lose their right to free speech, to hold their elected officials accountable, have their concerns voiced to the city council, have their concerns represented and voiced by their duly elected councilmember, and there is no adequate remedy at law to grant plaintiffs’ complete, final, and equitable relief.”

The Edinburg plaintiffs/residents attached to the lawsuit: Ludivina Leal, Miguel A. Garza, Jorge Salinas, Mario Garza, and Joe Ramirez.

McAllen-based Attorney Ruben R. Ramirez is named as their legal council.

Their lawsuit is seeking a permanent injunction against the city so that the ordinance that was placed on last Thursday’s agenda suffers a quick and painful death.

Last week, Edinburg Mayor Richard Garcia didn’t return a phone call placed by this newspaper seeking comment about the proposed ordinance, but he did speak with a Channel 4 (KGBT) reporter and explained in courtly fashion that his only intent in wanting the new ordinance passed was so a better sense of civility and decorum were in place during city council meetings.

Currently, the council is split 3-2 in a head-banging fashion.

The majority is comprised of the mayor, Councilman J. R. Betancourt, and Councilman Homer Jasso, Jr.

The two-member minority include: Councilmen Richard Molina and David Torres.

During the past approximate two years, Jasso Jr. jumped ship and sided with Molina and Torres. Long-standing city advisory boards were replaced with new members, new faces popped up, but at some point last year, Jasso Jr. returned to the mayor’s fold, and it was out with the new, and in with the old. The threesome has been tight ever since.

In a story published last week, Molina said, when discussing the proposed ordinance:

“In my opinion, this attempt to pass this ordinance is an outright attack on both democracy and freedom of speech. As an elected official, I represent the people who expect us to ask the tough questions.”

Molina said there was no doubt in his mind that the ordinance placed on last Thursday night’s agenda was clearly tied to a heated Dec. 12 special meeting, during which he and Torres raised questions concerning both the mayor’s family members and Councilmember Homer Jasso Jr.’s family members, and whether they had any business ties to either Burns Brothers LTD (La Sienna Community developers) and/or David Marquez (D&M Ventures) who is in the beginning stages of developing for the city a low-income apartment P3 (public-private) project that replicates Pharr’s Jackson Place Apartments currently under construction.

In other words, said Molina, were they guilty of any conflict of interest?

“I hope the public sees this for what it is,” said Molina, “which is an attempt by the mayor to completely control any and all discussions that take place during council meetings. The council is supposedly comprised of individuals elected by the people. As opposed to some sort of dictatorship.”

Two years ago, Burns LTD contributed $25,000 to the mayor’s political campaign fund (he’s up for re-election in November), and the city recently bought approximately 15 more acres from Burns LTD to presumably develop the La Sienna Apartment project on the south side of the La Sienna Community (master-planned community with high-dollar homes near the corner of U.S. Hwy 281 and Monte Cristo Road).

The question The Advance would like to ask Edinburg Mayor Garcia (please call) is why did the city just pay Burns LTD approximately $2 million for the 15-acre property on the south side of the La Sienna Community Development where the 288-unit La Sienna Apartment project is expected to be developed by David Marquez (D&M Ventures), despite the fact that the city still owns approximately 60 acres on the north side of the La Sienna Community that has lain fallow for the past approximately 4 years?

Why not tell Marquez to build the city’s new proposed $35-million development there instead if indeed the project rises to fruition? At least the grass would get cut.

 

Lawsuit Allegations

As laid out in the plaintiffs’ lawsuit filed last week, which led to the TRO, the plaintiffs say they have it on good knowledge and belief that the “Ordinance was drafted by City Attorney Ricardo “Rick” Palacios at the request of Mayor Garcia and placed on the agenda by Defendant Garcia.”

The lawsuit lists the City of Edinburg as the sole defendant.

Moreover, the suit claims, “This ordinance is a midnight hour attempt by Mayor Garcia to illegally circumvent open and public debate on matters before the Council, oppressively quash any potential dissent, silence free speech of both the citizens of Edinburg and their duly elected councilmembers, illegally bestow more powers upon himself as Mayor while illegally stripping other councilmembers of their power to fairly and openly represent their constituents’ concerns, and to illegally amend the city charter through an ordinance.”

As opposed to a vote by the people to amend the city charter.

The lawsuit said the plaintiffs believe that the proposed ordinance was proposed because of recent deep divides among the council.

However, claims the lawsuit, “these divides are healthy to the open government and to holding elected officials accountable – especially when conflicts of interest arise.”

The lawsuit also questions why the city is funding a local non-profit, VIDA, which is headed by Mayor Garcia’s wife. According to the suit, over the past approximate six years, the funding has totaled more than $1.6 million. During the most recent budget meeting, according to the lawsuit, VIDA was attempting to secure funding for just under $200,000.

The lawsuit also questions whether or not the city’s recent switch of insurance administrators is tied to special interests of a “certain politically influential family,” which citizens believe could end up costing taxpayers in the long run for such a “hasty and pervasive move.”

Among the parts of the proposed ordinance objected to by the plaintiffs:

“No person shall address the City Council without first being recognized by the Mayor or the presiding officer, including the Council Members.”

The new proposed ordinance contains more points of contention as laid out in the lawsuit:

  • Any councilmember who wants to place something on the agenda has to provide his or her request to the city manager in writing five days before the meeting, with all of the supporting documents to back up the request.
  • All persons at the city meeting, including the council members, shall at the request of the mayor or the presiding officer, be silent upon such order. If, after receiving a warning from the mayor or presiding officer, a person persists in disturbing the meeting, he’ll be ordered to leave. If he or she doesn’t leave, they’ll be forcibly removed. (The ordinance makes no mention of whether or not they’ll ever be seen again.)
  • Any person who shall intentionally disturb the proceedings of the City Council, after being warned by the mayor or the presiding officer of such action, may be removed from the meeting.
  • Any councilmember wishing to speak must first get permission from the mayor.

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