Weslaco leaders subpoenaed to appear before grand jury in closed meeting case

By Elizabeth Findell
The Monitor
Originally published Feb. 7, 2014

WESLACO — Five current and former city commissioners will go before an Hidalgo County grand jury Tuesday to make the case why they shouldn’t be indicted for kicking the public out of a public meeting.

City leaders drew a crowd when they called the special meeting in November, after the election but before new members had been sworn in.

Mayor Pro Tem John Cuellar—who was presiding over the meeting — ordered the room cleared after critics of his slate and allies of the minority began laughing and shouting.

Police Chief Michael Kelley complied and removed all members of the public — including those who were making no noise — and posted an officer at the door so no one could re-enter. Commissioner Olga Noriega walked out at that point as well and the rest of the commission went on to vote on four more items.

The elected officials who stayed are facing possible charges for violating the Texas Open Meetings Act, which requires that any meeting of elected leaders to discuss business be open to the public. District Attorney Rene Guerra took up the matter after receiving a complaint from one of the women ousted.

City Attorney Ramon Vela said Friday that Cuellar, Kelley, commissioners Lupe Rivera, David Fox and Jerry Tafolla, ex-Commissioner Joe Martinez, City Manager Leo Olivares and himself had all been subpoenaed at the city’s request to provide information to the grand jury.

“It would be very helpful for the grand jury to hear the city officials point of view because normally they don’t invite you,” Vela said.

A grand jury is not meant to hear extensive testimony like a court, or to assign guilt or innocence, but merely to decide whether an investigation or complaint has enough merit to warrant prosecution.

Vela previously said it had become clear to him that the meeting was not open and, upon his recommendation, the City Commission voided its action during that time and reconsidered those items the following week.

He said Friday he didn’t believe the actions rose to the level of illegal, saying the commission hadn’t intended to hold a closed meeting but were responding to various factors.

Cuellar, Rivera, Tafolla and Martinez did not return calls to comment.

It’s unusual for the Hidalgo County district attorney to pursue Open Meetings Act violations, even when they occur.

Fox generally declined to comment, but he, Vela and Olivares questioned why Guerra wasn’t also pursuing action against leaders in Mercedes, who called an “emergency” meeting to finalize annexation parcels in November with only three hours notice — not the 72 hours required by law. Emergency meetings are restricted to those dealing with “an imminent threat to public health and safety” or “a reasonably unforeseeable situation” constituting an “urgent public necessity.”

Asked that question in December, Guerra said he had read the Monitor’s account of the incident in Mercedes but had heard no public outcry over it.

“Nobody has complained about that and without any complaint, we’re not going to take any steps to go out and look for work,” he said.