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City attorney debate shows divides within Brownsville commission

September 23, 2018

When Brownsville city commissioners took their seats in the public chamber Tuesday, they had spent an hour interviewing two of four finalists who applied to fill the year-long vacancy in the City Attorney’s Office.

The evening’s agenda allowed for the possible hiring of a city attorney, but Mayor Tony Martinez pushed throughout the rest of the public discussion to postpone the decision.

Not all of the commissioners had spoken to each of the four finalists: Pensacola City Attorney Lysia H. Bowling, Brownsville Municipal Judge Rene E. De Coss, Denton City Attorney Aaron Leal and Brownsville attorney Gerry Linan. Leal withdrew his application Thursday.

During both the meeting and in interviews with The Brownsville Herald, commissioners described a seemingly tangled search process complicated by a shrinking — currently nonexistent — municipal legal department and competing visions for how hiring should have been handled.

Martinez motioned on Tuesday to table the action item on hiring a city attorney, but his motion failed. Commissioners later agreed to revisit the hiring Oct. 2.

“I don’t know how we can do this without interviewing all the applicants,” he said.

District 3 Commissioner Joel Munguia said he had spoken with all four candidates.

“I did have time to interview everybody. I came in on Friday,” he said during the meeting. Munguia did not respond to an email requesting an interview for this story.

Martinez told The Herald commissioners were asked on Sept. 12 about their availability to meet with the candidates.

“Really quite frankly, I don’t know that everyone has got a full appreciation of anyone else’s schedule, including the applicants’ (schedules),” he said. “We can all try to add a little more drama to it, but the truth is we all just needed more time. And in my humble opinion it was prudent to take a little bit more time and accomplish the goal of making sure we give every applicant time to interview with us.”

At-Large “B” Commissioner Rose Gowen said she was contacted on Sept. 13 and asked if she could speak with finalists the following Monday, Sept. 17. Commissioners were organized in groups of three to interview city attorney candidates prior to Tuesday’s finalist interviews with the full City Commission, she said.

“I could not cancel my patients,” said Gowen, who is a physician. “I explained my patients often have transportation barriers and wait several weeks to see us. It’s not kind to cancel them at a moment’s notice …”

She said De Coss and Linan were present at the Tuesday meeting to be interviewed.

District 1 Commission Ricardo Longoria, Jr. said the format of candidate interviews was not specified.

“I was of the opinion that we go into executive session with submitted questions. That wasn’t followed,” he said. “In my opinion, it was all over the place. We didn’t finish interviewing.”

Longoria said commissioners did not interview a candidate who was available by phone because Martinez resumed the scheduled City Commission meeting at 6 p.m. A fourth candidate was not available to speak Tuesday, he said.

FILLING THE GAP

The City Attorney’s Office currently sits empty, no office furniture or equipment except for a gray telephone resting on a windowsill.

It’s emptying began with the termination of Mark Sossi on Aug. 14 by a commission 4-2 vote. Commissioners Jessica Tetreau-Kalifa, Ben Neece, Gowen and Cesar De Leon voted for the termination while Munguia and Longoria voted against it.

At the time, Tetreau-Kalifa, who represents District 2, told The Herald that Sossi’s firing came because commissioners were evaluating the legal department’s structure amid continued growth in the city.

Assistant City Attorney Timothy Sampeck was named interim city attorney, and De Leon was tasked on Oct. 26 with leading a search committee for Sossi’s permanent replacement.

It was with those two dates that Neece began going over the timeline that led up to Tuesday’s meeting. His remarks were a scathing criticism of de Leon’s performance as chairman of the city attorney search committee.

Neece accused de Leon of bypassing the 10-member search committee, which he said wasn’t formed until April, and missing all but one of their meetings. Tetreau-Kalifa, who was also on the committee, attended none of the meetings, Neece said.

The search committee’s input was disregarded, he said, though they were supposed to evaluate the best model for the legal department, analyze the city charter “to determine the framework for hiring,” and review the job description. Neece said the committee did not review applications or participate in interviews.

The search firm hired to help find candidates was never contacted by de Leon, Neece said, and terminated its agreement with the city as a result. A spokesperson said Brownsville has not made any payments to Ralph Anderson and Associates related to the city attorney search.

“(De Leon) tried to cast aspersions on the city manager selection process, claiming many citizens felt a shroud of secrecy surrounding the process and that there was a lack of professionalism,” Neece said, “as if this had anything to do with our committee.”

De Leon defended himself and said he maintained he was committed to transparency. He noted that he had hiring experience as board director of Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation, which completed its own director search this year.

“Now I do want to address, and that’s why there’s been a chilling effect when it comes to hiring people at the city. Nobody wants to work with us,” de Leon said. “The other issue we’ve had is (the) job description. That was done by the HR department.”

De Leon said Interim City Manager Michael Lopez was responsible for canceling city attorney search committee meetings and closing the application. It was also city staff who published the job posting, he added.

“I unilaterally did not put this in any publication. That is a total lie,” de Leon said, adding that some on the commission would rather push hiring decisions until after the May election.

“We’re not moving forward, but at the same time, the citizens keep suffering,” he said. “So I am tired of personal attacks, I am tired of everybody always blaming me when I had nothing to do with this. I actually just tried to be as transparent as possible in my dealings and I tried to put a committee together.”

De Leon agreed to a follow-up interview with The Herald but said Friday he would be unable to speak in-person or via phone due to work and travel obligations. The Herald declined his request to email questions.

During the Tuesday meeting, de Leon also referenced a lawsuit brought against GBIC in July to halt the incoming executive director from assuming his duties. A judge ruled in GBIC’s favor the same month.

“Halfway in our selection committee in GBIC that’s when we got sued, and that’s why this fell to the wayside,” de Leon said, adding he told Martinez that the selection committee should have been made up of city commissioners. “… if we want to invite outside members of the public, we should, but the thing is, how do I avoid now being sued by other members? So that created a chilling effect, and I guess that’s why I stopped going to the meetings.”

Tetreau-Kalifa said the intent for the Tuesday finalist interviews was to give each of the four candidates 15 minutes to address commissioners during executive session.

“So at the last minute, I’m not sure what happened with planning, but some of the candidates were not available,” she said. “There’s a preconception there’s somebody in particular we’re looking for, and there’s not. We’re just looking for the most qualified person to take over the day-to-day operations (of the legal department).”

Tetreau-Kalifa said there is no criticism of the search committee members, who were:

>> Felix Recio, retired federal magistrate judge

>> Katy Youker, attorney at Texas Rural Legal Aid Brownsville

>> Jaime Diez, attorney at Jones and Crane PLLC

>> Aaron Rendon, assistant prosecutor at the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office

>> Phil Bellamy, municipal court judge and attorney

>> Erin Gamez, attorney at Gamez and Gamez PC

>> Guy Huddleston, corporate ambassador at Edwards Abstract

Tetreau-Kalifa shared de Leon’s view that the search committee should have been comprised of commissioners, who were elected by Brownsville residents and given authority to hire a city attorney by the city charter. That was part of the reason she did not attend committee meetings, she said, compounded by her outside obligations.

She said there initially wasn’t urgency to hire a replacement for Sossi because the City Attorney’s Office was otherwise staffed.

“The pressure started when (attorneys) started leaving one by one,” she said. “Now we have this situation where the search committee feels cheated and the commission needs to make a decision. I was ready to make a decision based on the fact that my constituents had to continue to pay (for outside counsel) with their hard-earned tax dollars.”

Longoria said the lack of a city attorney has impacted the city “100 percent in a negative way.” Gowen said the outside law firm assisting the commission has been responsive, and she doesn’t feel the city has suffered.

For his part, Martinez is looking at the bright side. The city’s needs are more complex with continued growth, Space X, development at the port, high education growth and affordable housing demands.

“We are going to have hiccups regardless of how perfect we’d like to be, but … I see a lot of good efforts by this commission, I see a lot of good efforts by the public,” he said. “Not everyone’s going to be happy at all times, but I think we have a lot of be thankful for.”

nadia@brownsvilleherald.com

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