Questions linger after chaotic Mercedes meeting - Brownsville Herald: Local News

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Questions linger after chaotic Mercedes meeting

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Posted: Thursday, September 19, 2019 9:00 pm

Four people remain in police custody and questions linger after a Mercedes City Commission meeting devolved into a frenetic chaos of yelling and scattered chairs Tuesday night.

Velda Garcia and her two children, Aileen Luna and Noel Rodriguez — along with fellow Mercedes resident, Dalia Peña — remain in custody at the Weslaco municipal jail, officials at the Weslaco Police Department confirmed Wednesday afternoon. Mercedes inmates are being housed at the Weslaco jail pending the construction of new jail facilities in Mercedes.

Their continued detention was also confirmed by Eliamar Rodriguez, wife of Noel Rodriguez. “I have not talked to my husband yet, neither has my father-in-law,” Eliamar said in a phone interview Wednesday evening.

“The only person that we’ve been able to speak to is Velda,” she said.

Garcia and her two children were arrested inside the city commission chamber when things became tumultuous just minutes before a city commission meeting could begin Tuesday night.

Peña was arrested after the meeting had commenced and after she delivered a public comment critical of Mercedes Police Chief Dagoberto “Dago” Chavez and accusing him of being a drunk. Police took her into custody in the hallway as she attempted to return to the chamber to retrieve her purse.

It’s unclear what charges the four Mercedes residents are facing. Multiple calls and text messages to Chief Chavez went unreturned as of press time Wednesday.

Local residents and at least one public official were also struggling to obtain answers.

Eliamar Rodriguez said her family’s attempts to reach Chavez and Mayor Henry Hinojosa had been unsuccessful. “We even tried to come to the actual Mercedes PD,” she said. “They’re not giving us any information. They’re leaving us out in the cold.”

Commissioner Jose Gomez, who left city hall before the arrests occurred Tuesday, said he had been able to communicate with the police chief and City Manager Sergio Zavala via text message, but was still unable to glean much information. “As we speak, I’m here at the police department,” Gomez said when reached via phone Wednesday afternoon.

“They’re not being very informative,” the commissioner said, adding that he has requested to be notified when the four residents are arraigned so he can “witness what the charges are.”

Though the four residents were taken into custody Tuesday evening, they were not brought to city hall for arraignment Wednesday, the day of the week when Municipal Judge Juan R. Alvarez typically presides over court in the city commission chamber.

“I was expecting them to be ready today, but I can’t say why … it’s not ready yet,” Alvarez said via phone. “I don’t control that; it’s the police department,” he said, adding that he arraigns defendants when police provide him the paperwork needed to do so.

“As soon as they give me the phone call, I’m available,” Alvarez said. “I’m available 24/7” even via Skype, he said.

Though little is yet known regarding the charges, social media has been awash in rumors that the four residents are facing charges of disrupting a public meeting. Commissioner Gomez spoke to those rumors, noting that the arrests of Garcia, Luna and Rodriguez came before the meeting officially began.

“The city meeting had not started and the mayor said — it’s on video — the mayor said for disrupting the meeting,” Gomez said.

He also objected to what he saw as City Attorney Anthony Troiani overstepping his boundaries in asking law enforcement to step in just prior to the three family members being arrested. Gomez said he was standing next to the city attorney when it happened. “I’m a witness to that, and so that’s why it bothers me, because I know that that’s not one of his responsibilities,” Gomez said, adding that the city attorney is supposed to advise the commission.

The commissioner ultimately left the chamber seconds later, right as events began to escalate. He explained he did not want to be present at a public meeting where people were being prohibited from attending.

At least 20 minutes before the meeting was set to begin the fire chief declared the room filled to capacity, preventing dozens of people from entering and leaving them instead left to crowd around the building’s three entrances, which stood guarded by police.

Gomez also commented on the impetus for the large turnout of residents — two agenda items calling for the potential censure and removal of Commissioner Leonel Benavidez in connection with three complaints brought against him by city employees, including the police chief.

“I am saddened to see what happened, but personally, these accusations against Benavidez did not rise to that point to where he was to have been removed,” Gomez said.

Speaking after the meeting, Benavidez was grateful for the support of so many. “It means a lot. It says a lot,” Benavidez said.

Benavidez got a reprieve Tuesday after being granted a temporary restraining order preventing the city from taking any action against him pending the outcome of a temporary injunction hearing on Sept. 30.

The mayor, city manager and city attorney all declined to comment Tuesday night. Commissioners Leo Villarreal and Cristela “Cris” De Leon Hernandez also declined to comment when reached by phone Wednesday.

Court records show the city had not yet submitted a response to Benavidez’s TRO as of press time Wednesday.

darevalo@mvtcnews.com

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