Weslaco commissioners plead not guilty to Open Meetings Act charges

By Elizabeth Findell
The Monitor
Originally published March 6, 2014

EDINBURG — Weslaco city commissioners argued Thursday that they did not violate theTexas Open Meetings Act during a controversial November meeting.

Mayor Pro Tem John Cuellar, commissioners David Fox, Lupe Rivera and Jerry Tafolla and former Commissioner Joe Martinez appeared before 139thstate District Judge Bobby Flores Thursday. All entered pleas of “not guilty.”

A grand jury last week indicted the five commissioners and they have already checked in and out of the Hidalgo County jail after each person’s personal recognizance bond was set at $2,500. The charges are Class B misdemeanors punishable by a $100 to $500 fine, with the possibility of a one- to six-month term in county jail.

The judge scheduled a pre-trial hearing for May 12.

The Open Meetings Act holds that any gathering of a quorum of city leaders to discuss business must be open to the general public.

In November, commissioners responded to rowdy audience members by removing everyone except employees of the city and city-created development corporation and continuing the meeting with the door blocked.

The five commissioners declined to comment to the media at the hearing, but attorney Javier Peña argued the indictment is nothing but political payback. He accused Benita Valadez, the woman who filed the complaint against commissioners, of doing so out of bitterness because she lost a contract to work for the city a few years ago.

Peña had previously blasted Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra for singling out the Weslaco case when he has not typically prosecuted Open Meetings Act violations. Peña claimed the commissioners’ support for Ricardo Rodriguez, the opponent who defeated Guerra in Tuesday’s Democratic primary election, was the reason.

Guerra said he merely considered the Weslaco violation more blatant because he had seen it on TV.

Further, Peña argued that city leaders hadn’t intended to clear the entire room, but that Valadez’s attorney Frank Garza, who attended the meeting as a citizen, had told police Chief Michael Kelly to clear everyone from the room.

“It wasn’t the commissioners that said to remove everybody,” Peña said. “I think it’s going to be very clear that there was no violation of the Open Meetings Act.”