In whistleblower lawsuit, ex-Donna city manager claims council members cut bills for friends

By Elizabeth Findell
The Monitor
Originally published July 1, 2014

Donna city leaders ordered their ex-city manager to waive city fees for friends and fired him after he notified authorities, according to claims in a lawsuit brought under the Texas Whistleblower Act this month.

City Council members fired City Manager Oscar Ramirez March 31, giving no specific reasons for the dismissal. On June 12, he sued the five council members who had voted to fire him. He also sued bridge consultant Ernesto Silva.

The lawsuit claims Mayor David Simmons, Councilmen Joey Garza and Simon Sauceda and ex-Councilwoman Irene Muñoz had given orders to city employees to reduce water and sewer bills for people. Specifically, Simmons reduced Municipal Judge Javier Garza’s bill on at least one occasion and Sauceda did so for two family members, according to the lawsuit.

It also accuses Simmons of giving orders to waive fees at the city’s cemetery.

Ramirez said he was fired after he reported those and other similar incidents to the police and municipal court.

The mayor did not return calls for comment Monday.

Donna City Attorney Eddy Treviño said he couldn’t comment on the pending lawsuit, but said the city would be filing a response in the next few weeks, once everyone had been formally served.

The lawsuit further questions the process of Ramirez’s firing, accusing city leaders of holding a meeting that may have been canceled and violating the Texas Open Meetings Act. An agenda posted at City Hall for an April meeting where Ramirez contested his termination had been marked canceled, but the meeting remained posted on the city’s website.

When a Monitor reporter and Ramirez’s attorney questioned whether it was still on, they were told it was. Council members then upheld their previous decision.

BRIDGE DEAL

The only non-city official named in the lawsuit is Silva, who has worked for the city attempting to sell a portion of the Donna-Rio Bravo International Bridge. Ramirez’s termination came amid sticking points on a pending deal with Pharr that ultimately fell through, but Donna city leaders called the matters unrelated.

In the lawsuit, Ramirez accuses Silva of interfering with his employment contract by excluding him from negotiations with Pharr, undermining him to the City Council and interfering with “due diligence” in pursuit of a deal.

Silva said Monday that he hadn’t read the lawsuit yet, or been served, but generally denied the claims.

“I was hired by the city and my contract was to negotiate the terms of the partnership and then those terms were to be brought back to the City Council, and that’s what I did,” he said. “I really don’t care who the city manager is in Donna… I have nothing to gain, whether it’s Oscar or anybody else.”