Brownsville, a year in review
s 2019 starts and the news cycle continues ever on, here’s a look at impactful news items in the City of Brownsville throughout 2018.
City Manager Search
There was some uncertainty at the beginning of 2018 as the City began the year without a city manager after longtime administrator Charlie Cabler retired on Oct. 10, 2017, after a controversial audit showed he was aware that a private ambulance company was operating in Brownsville without a permit.
Cameron County District Attorney’s Office investigators have connected that company to embattled former fire chief Carlos Elizondo, who is facing two separate indictments, one for computer security breach and one for theft from the firefighter’s union. Elizondo has maintained his innocence.
However, just a little more than two weeks into the new year, the City Commission voted to appoint Michael L. Lopez as interim city manager.
Meanwhile, the city had paid Ralph Andersen and Associates $150,000 to find candidates to fill Cabler’s search, but months later, in July, the city hit the reset button, completely starting the search over. At the time, City Commissioner At-Large "B" Rose M. Gowen said the search committee wanted to broaden the search after two of four finalists withdrew their names from consideration.
By late September, the committee narrowed the search to three candidates, Juan Guerra, Pharr city manager; Jesus Garza, Kingsville city manager; and Noel Bernal, deputy city manager of Coppell, Texas.
On Oct. 16, the City Commission unanimously chose Bernal for the job.
City Commissioners spent little time sparking controversy after Bernal officially took the reins as city manager.
During his first official meeting at a Dec. 4 City Commission meeting, the commission voted 4-3 to abolish the city’s Audit & Oversight Committee - the same committee that brought an internal audit to light revealing that despite complaints from the police department, that private ambulance company was operating without a permit despite Cabler having knowledge of it.
Commissioners Cesar de Leon, Jessica Tetreau, Ricardo Longoria Jr. and Joel Munguia voted to abolish the committee before City Commissioner Ben Neece could release an independent report that revealed more details of the private ambulance company debacle and its connection to Elizondo.
By abolishing the committee, de Leon, Tetreau, Longoria and Munguia also successfully stopped the committee from hearing about a complaint filed by Brownsville Police Department Lt. David Dale that alleged Tetreau pressured him to change a bicycle patrol shift schedule in exchange for her supporting him to be the city’s next chief. Dale also complained in that document, which was later obtained by The Brownsville Herald, that interim Chief James Paschall demoted him in a political play over who will be the next Brownsville Police Department chief.
During that meeting, Neece accused Tetreau of trying to bury the report and complaint and Tetreau called for a criminal investigation into Neece for pressuring her to vote a certain way. The following day, Tetreau filed a police report with the BPD accusing Neece of abusing his official capacity by trying to threaten her "into not voting on particular items on the agenda."
At the end of that contentious meeting, Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez could be heard on tape telling Bernal, "Welcome to Brownsville."
Chief Rodriguez Retires
In August, the city saw another high-level position within the City of Brownsville become vacant as Brownsville Police Department Chief Orlando C. Rodriguez announced his retirement.
At the time, Rodriguez said his decision was not an easy one.
"It’s in my heart. Otherwise, I would not leave such a wonderful job and do something else," Rodriguez said. "It’s just some downtime to reflect and relax, and we’ll see what the future holds."
On his way out the door, Rodriguez appointed then-Commander Dale as acting chief, a position Dale would only hold for approximately one month. On Sept. 17, then interim-City Manager Lopez appointed longtime BPD Lt. James Paschall as interim chief, a position Paschall still holds. That appointment came four days after Rodriguez’s last official day on the job.
Meanwhile, the city was searching for someone to fill Rodriguez’s shoes, though it did not open up the search to anyone outside of the Brownsville Police Department.
So far eight officers have applied for the position. Those candidates include Dale; Patrol Lt. William Dietrich; Investigations Services Commander Henry Etheridge; Patrol Sgt. Napoleon Gonzalez; Lt. Raul Rodriguez; Lt. Felix Sauceda; Lt. Gerard C. Serrata; and Sgt. Carlos A. Zamorano. Paschall, the interim chief, did not apply.
On Sept. 26, Lopez said the process to select the new chief would last between 30 and 45 days. That estimate has long passed and in November, when The Herald obtained a letter written by Dale to the police union where he defended ending a popular shift, the city refused to provide an update on the police chief selection process.
Cabler’s resignation in October 2017 wasn’t the only big fallout from the private ambulance scandal. That same month, the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office arrested former fire chief Elizondo on charges of theft by a public servant and misapplication of fiduciary property.
However, before Elizondo was arrested, the city demoted and suspended him, promoting then-Deputy Fire Chief Jarrett V. Sheldon as interim chief.
Sheldon spent nearly a year serving in an interim capacity until Aug. 13 when Lopez announced Sheldon would be the Brownsville Fire Department’s next chief.
One story that largely flew under the radar for months was the abrupt closing of International Educational Services, which at the end of March fired all of its employees and moved the immigrant children it housed to other nonprofit shelters.
At the time, IES refused to say why it closed its doors.
However, as spring turned to summer the IES closure didn’t get much scrutiny as President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance to illegal immigration placed Brownsville in the national spotlight. The eyes of national media and lawmakers were squarely focused on Southwest Key Programs - another Texas-based nonprofit that housed undocumented immigrant children.
Immediately after IES closed, The Brownsville Herald filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Office of Refugee and Resettlement seeking a letter the agency sent to IES informing the nonprofit why the federal agency would not renew its grant funding.
After six months of pestering federal employees on the status of that request, the ORR finally ponied up the letter, which revealed that an audit determined that employees profited when IES leased properties they owned and that executives paid themselves salaries that were hundreds of thousands of dollars more than what was allowed , among other discrepancies that led to that nonprofit’s closure.
While the Rio Grande Valley was again spared from facing a hurricane, it certainly wasn’t out of the water in 2018.
In June, heavy rains caused flash flooding that inundated Cameron County leaving areas in Weslaco and Mercedes in Hidalgo County under three to five feet of water.
While Brownsville was largely spared during the rain event, much of Cameron and Hidalgo counties were under water.
In Cameron County, there were more than 100 water rescues.
In all, approximately a foot of rain fell in pockets of Cameron County.
As 2018 inched closer to its end, former Texas Southmost College President Lily Tercero had her day in court - and she won big.
Tercero sued the college after it fired her in September 2016 for deliberately and recklessly failing to obtain windstorm insurance with board approval in compliance with state law; for allowing TSC checks to be stamped with signatures of people who were no longer trustees; for failing to timely serach and fill the position of vice president for finance and administration; for failing to inform the board of the ailing nursing program and its pending suspension; for refusing a board member’s request that he personally sign and review checks in the amount of $10,000 or more and for not complying with a request for information sought by another member.
After a four-day trial, a federal jury ruled that TSC fired her during a sham termination hearing and awarded Tercero $13.1 million in damages.
Rest in Peace
At the end of November, the Rio Grande Valley lost a legend.
On Nov. 26, conservationist, rancher and philanthropist Frank Yturria died in a Houston hospital at the age of 95.
Yturria and his family were integral in placing thousands of acres of land in South Texas into easements to protect endangered ocelots and other wildlife.
Yturria, a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, also launched Cameron County’s first Republican Party.
The Yturrias were also committed to historical preservation and played important roles in restoring the Cameron County Courthouse, also known as the Dancy Building.