By DINA ARÉVALO
Port Isabel-South Padre Press
Just over a year after he was terminated, former Port Isabel City Manager Edward P. Meza has filed a lawsuit against the City.
The suit, filed in United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, also names Mayor Juan Jose “J.J.” Zamora and Commissioner Martin C. Cantu as defendants.
In the complaint, Meza alleges his termination was an act of retaliation for attempting to bring to light corruption within the City’s leadership. He also alleges that his severance pay, which was equal to one year’s salary, was denied him as a further act of retaliation. He is seeking just over $78,000 in damages, plus attorney’s fees and costs.
“Plaintiff Meza’s employment as City Manager was terminated by a vote of three (3) commissioners … in retaliation for Plaintiff Meza’s exposing various City Charter violations and breaches of law committed by Commissioners Zamora and Cantu…” the complaint reads.
Meza also alleges that the retaliation for his speaking out is a violation of his First Amendment rights.
The complaint further reads that the three named defendants, plus Gilberto Hinojosa, Jared Hockema and Commissioner Jeffery Martinez, “…conspiring to deny (Meza) his promised severance package was done solely in retaliation for Plaintiff Meza’s exposing the overall level of corruption rampant in the business/official dealings of these Individual Defendants with (the City of Port Isabel).”
The City has wholly denied the allegations.
In a 4-page response submitted to the court, the City denies, “… both factually and as a matter of law, that the Plaintiff’s termination was motivated by constitutionally protected First Amendment conduct or any other protected conduct.”
The response admits that no severance pay has been paid out to the former city manager, but denies that any is owed at all. The City denies that it is, “under a legal obligation to provide a severance payment as demanded.”
To understand the impetus of the lawsuit, one must look back to the spring of 2015 and a rising dissension that began to take hold of the City Commission prior to the May elections. Members of the Commission began making allegations of wrongdoing, alleging that commissioners were profiting off the City in violation of the City charter.
Ultimately, in a heated Commission meeting held on Monday, April 13, 2015, opposing members of the Commission called for votes to oust each other. On one side, Commissioner Martin C. Cantu and then-Commissioner Zamora voted to remove Commissioner Guillermo “Memo” Torres from office. That motion failed with Mayor Joe E. Vega and Commissioners Torres and Maria de Jesus “M.J.” Garza voting against it.
In the very next agenda item, placed there by Torres, votes to remove Zamora and Cantu passed 3-2. As Port Isabel residents within the chamber clamored, Zamora could be heard telling the remaining members of the Commission that they’d be hearing from his lawyer.
Indeed, not long after, the City and its Commissioners were in court. On April 24, 2015 Zamora and Cantu, represented by Gilberto Hinojosa, sought a temporary injunction in the 444th District Court to reinstate the ousted commissioners until a hearing could be held. Judge Bobby Flores granted the injunction.
At the core of the dispute amongst the three commissioners was whether or not they had profited off the City, via their respective automotive repair businesses, in violation of the City charter.
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