Rio Grande City terminates city manager

Alberto Perez was ousted as city manager of Rio Grande City on Monday after more than four years with the municipality and following a contract renewal earlier this year.

The city commissioners voted to terminate Perez following a nearly two-hour executive session during which they discussed his contract.

Commissioner Flor Flores made a motion to terminate him under the terms of his contract which require a 30 days notice. For those days, Perez will be placed on paid administrative leave, during which time he and the city attorney will finalize his termination including his severance pay.

Mayor Joel Villarreal and Commissioner Rey Ramirez joined Flores in voting to fire Perez while Commissioners Hernan Garza III and Alberto Escobedo voted against it.

Police Chief Noe Castillo was then appointed interim city manager.

Perez has been with the city since September 2016 when he was hired for a six-month probationary period. In March 2017, was officially hired as the city manager on a three-year contract which was renewed for two more years in March.

Before the commissioners convened in executive session for a closed discussed, Perez asked to address the commissioners in public on the subject of his employment.

Perez began by listing his accomplishments and those of the city under his supervision, but then turned to the item itself and alleged that the possibility of his termination was a direct result of his filing two whistleblower complaints.

“I firmly believe this item and the proposed actions are a direct consequence of two whistleblower complaints I filed on Oct. 10 and Oct. 12 … with the mayor and legal counsel,” Perez said. “In the complaints I discussed actions taken by the mayor, commissioners and employees who violate state law, city charter, and established protocol.”

The first complaint, Perez said, dealt with an agenda item for a previous meeting that said the commissioners planned to discuss the employment of their public utilities director, Steven E. Cruz III.

In September, Cruz issued a statement to El Tejano, a news outlet based in Rio Grande City, in which he alleged theft and other illegal activity within the city in the past. He accused one of the city commissioners of harassment and of trying to publicly humiliate him.

Following that statement, the commissioners met on Sept. 23 to discuss the possibility of firing Cruz but before the actual meeting, Cruz’s attorney, Juan Sonny Palacios Jr., wrote a letter to the city attorney arguing that only the city manager had the authority to terminate him.

So instead of firing Cruz, the commissioners asked the city attorney to conduct an inquiry into Cruz’s public statements.

“On Sept. 24, 2020, I was directed by legal counsel to conduct an inquiry as to the statements made by the public utilities director and to present a report and my recommendations,” Perez told the commissioners on Monday. “On Oct. 1, 2020, I presented my findings; I found that the director had not violated any policy or procedure, thus I did not recommend any adverse action.”

“It became apparent that the commission expected me to recommend the director’s termination,” Perez added.

But Perez was unable to finish explaining the basis for his whistleblower complaints as City Attorney Calixtro Villarreal interrupted and instructed Perez to limit his remarks to his accomplishments and overall job performance.

However, he also said that two alleged illegal actions occurred during the executive session on Oct. 28 — his whistleblower complaints were discussed without listing the item as he claims is required, and he claimed his rights as a whistleblower were violated, citing the Texas Whistleblower Act which protects public employees from retaliation.

In response, the mayor pointed to a conversation he and Perez had before he was hired.

“I remember having a conversation with you and I personally told you myself that if I ever, at any point in time … had question in trust, that I would personally go and talk to you and tell you specifically that that’s the case,” Villarreal said. “And in return, you mentioned to me, of your own volition, you said to me that at that point, if it ever got to that, that you yourself would voluntarily walk away. Your words not mine.”

“Maybe a month or so ago, I kept my end of the bargain in reference to that conversation, because I do keep my word,” the mayor continued. “And I went to you and I specifically mentioned to you that my trust had been broken considerably and significantly in regards to some of the practices that you were following.”

“Shortly after I had that conversation with you, maybe a few days afterwards, that’s when you wrote this whistleblower report, after the conversation I had with you,” Villarreal said. “Now, what that entails, I don’t know, but I seriously … question these motives behind your complaint.”

At the conclusion of the mayor’s remarks, Perez asked what the criteria would be for the evaluation of his job performance, to which Villarreal said that would be discussed in executive session.

“So there’s no evaluation, you’re just going to create it as you go or…” Perez said.

“No, sir,” Villarreal said. “We’ve had many conversations with other individuals and people under your supervisory role and … as well as my personal dealings with you, Mr. Perez.”

Neither Perez nor Villarreal could be reached for comment after the meeting.