By MARTHA McCLAIN
Special to the PRESS
A lawsuit calling for the immediate termination of Laguna Vista Municipal Court Judge Roberto Rodriguez has been filed by an attorney representing Duane Rasmussen in state district court against the Town of Laguna Vista.
The legal action stems from what some say is the failure of the Town Council to abide by terms of the City Charter adopted in 2011.
Section 4.05 of the charter that reads: “Each Municipal Judge shall be a duly licensed attorney where possible. This provision shall not disqualify any non-Attorney Municipal Judge who may be serving at the time of the adoption of this Charter.” Rodriguez was selected from a pool of four candidates, three of which were attorneys who include Robert Matoush, Joe Lewis and Melanie Moore.
Mayor Susie Houston responded to the lawsuit Wednesday, saying that she and the majority of the Council followed their attorney’s advice in their vote to hire Rodriguez.
Rasmussen said Wednesday that measures calling for elected officials to honor the City Charter and rescind Rodriguez’s appointment have failed over the past two years. He finally opted to file legal action to compel compliance with the Charter, he said. He is also asking that the Town be required to re-advertise the position, receive new applications and follow the City Charter in their appointment of a new municipal court judge.
Rodriguez is the first judge to serve in that position since the adoption of the Charter. However, since his appointment, heavy criticism has been directed at elected officials who voted to instate him. Those officials are named along with the Town in the legal action, Rasmussen said.
“I’ve been fighting a long while with letters to the editor and speaking at council meetings and not getting anywhere,” he said. Others with similar views, who are presently remaining silent, are also involved, he said.
Houston said, “I have been saying for the past two years that I did what I felt was right. We followed the advice of our attorney (Ramon Vela at the time), who said we could appoint a non-attorney as judge.”
However, the attorney’s opinion was challenged by two councilmembers who voted against Rodriguez’s appointment, “How was the language (of the City Charter on the matter) interpreted, and by whom?” they asked, with a standing-room-only crowd consisting primarily of citizens against Rodriguez’s appointment.
City Attorney Ramon Vela responded at the time, saying, “There are times that the Town can waive any formality of qualifications if it is more advantageous to the City,” he said.
“I advised the Council that they could appoint someone, not a licensed attorney. Everyone (Councilmember) has the discretion on how to interpret the language. It is not an open and shut case that it has to be a lawyer. They don’t have to possess a law degree,” Vela said. Vela later resigned his position and officials subsequently appointed current attorney Ricardo Morado as his replacement.
Over the course of the past years during public comments, residents have risen to admonish the board for its earlier actions. Among those speaking against the Council’s appointment were citizens who had served on the Charter Review Committee who specifically recounted their earlier discussions to ensure a qualified attorney would fill the position.
Rodriguez’s term will expire in August and Town officials last week unanimously approved a process to advertise for and evaluate a new round of candidates for that position, one of which would likely be appointed in July. Rodriguez could submit an application and be reconsidered for appointment.
Rodriguez has 29 years of law enforcement experience, including county jailer, telecommunications, street patrol, fire arms instructor, detective and special investigations. He retired as chief of police from the City of South Padre Island where he served in that capacity from 2000 -2009. He holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice (police administration) from UT-Brownsville/TSC and an associate degree in criminal justice. At the time of his appointment, Rodriguez was general partner and private investigator of Gold Star Investigations, LLP, South Padre Island.
A recommended schedule included advertising during the months of April and May, setting a deadline to receive applications for May 31.
Review and screening would occur at the June 11 Town Council meeting and interviews and selection would take place at the July 9 Town Council meeting, to be in effect in August.
Rasmussen said the Council’s actions do not impact his case. “I don’t know if they will follow the Charter this time. They may do the same thing again,” he said.