City Secretary issue leads to divided discussion over salaries
By DINA ARÉVALO
Port Isabel-South Padre Press
Even before the meeting could be called to order, a debate was already being waged inside the Port Isabel City Commission meeting room Monday.
Earlier that afternoon, Interim City Manager Jared Hockema informed City Secretary Susie Alcocer that she would not be taking the minutes of Monday night’s special meeting. Instead, the duties would be performed by Assistant City Secretary Nadini P. Jee. He explained that notes taken by Alcocer the previous week had been ‘gibberish.’
“We need to take accurate minutes,” he said.
“So who’s going to put together the minutes after the meeting?” asked Mayor Joe E. Vega.
“I’ll work with both of them (Alcocer and Jee) and we’ll make sure they get put together,” Hockema replied.
Shortly afterward, Vega called the meeting to order and opened the floor to public comments. Alcocer’s attorney, John Shergold – who is representing her in her age discrimination complaint against the City – stood to object to the new instructions given to her by Hockema.
“The city secretary of this city, like most cities, comes under and operates under a city charter, and so it’s her responsibility to take the minutes of the meeting, and not have them delegated to other parties — unless the charter is changed,” he said. He urged the Commission to take up the discussion at the next commission meeting.
With the public comments concluded, the Commission moved on to discussing items on the Consent Agenda, which is a list of items normally approved with little fanfare. However, a new debate erupted before the Commission voted to approve budget amendments and employee salaries.
“I had some questions in regards to some of the people who got raises, and why did only a certain amount of people get raises?” Vega asked.
Hockema explained that some City employees, such as the assistant city secretary and Economic Development Corporation (EDC) administrator, received wage increases due to taking on additional job duties. Vega rebutted, saying other employees who similarly took on new duties had not received wage increases.
“There are other folks that may need to be adjusted,” Hockema replied, adding that additional raises would occur as funds become available.
Vega then mentioned the hiring of an employee within the Public Works Department, alleging that the employee had been a ‘poll watcher’ for Commissioner Jeffery Martinez during elections earlier this year. “I don’t know if you were pressured to do this for political reasons, but that’s not right,” Vega said to Hockema.
“I’m using my judgment to determine what is the best way to manage the City,” Hockema responded. “You’re welcome to disagree with it. The public is welcome to disagree.”
Commissioner Martinez reminded the Commission the City no longer has minimum wage employees after its lower-wage earners received pay bumps for the first time in five years. Commissioner Maria de Jesus “M.J.” Garza voiced concern that a salary reduction had been meted out to the city secretary when previously the Commission had only heard discussions about wage increases. “I really, totally disagree in the reduction that the City secretary got,” she said.
Commissioner Juan Jose “J.J.” Zamora then entered the fray, bringing up the amount of money the City spent in attorney fees the previous year, approximately $300,000, and the subsequent cost-savings it will reap via new City attorney Gilbert Hinojosa, who agreed to a lower fee earlier this year.
Zamora also mentioned the outstanding attorney fees still owed the City by former Commissioner Guillermo “Memo” Torres, who was ordered to repay $2,500. “That’s one of your cronies there,” Zamora said to Vega.
The Commission then turned their attention to the rest of the agenda items before again revisiting debate in regards to the city secretary prior to retiring to executive session. There, they were set to discuss her age discrimination complaint. Her attorney again voiced an objection, asking the Commission to hold the discussion in open session. He argued the City’s decision to release a copy of Alcocer’s complaint to the media constituted a waiver to discussing the matter behind closed doors.
Hinojosa countered, saying the discussion was a matter of attorney-client privilege due to a need to discuss litigation strategy. The Commission then entered executive session.
Upon returning to open session, Garza made a motion to reinstate the city secretary’s original salary of $23.77 per hour. Unable to draw a second, the motion died.
Speaking after the meeting, Vega expressed his strong disagreement with Alcocer’s wage reduction. “I don’t object to the salary increases,” he said Tuesday. “What I do object (to) is that they only cut one person’s salary,” he said.
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