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By G. Romero Wendorf

There’s so much traction to this story, the $190,000 severance package paid to former Pharr City Manager Fred Sandoval, look for it to re-surface two years from now, during which three of the four city commissioners who voted in favor of it will face re-election in the 2017 race.

Will it have quietly disappeared into the sunset by then, who knows. But in coffee shops around the city last week, most people I spoke with were opposed to the payout.

With Sandoval’s requested 18-month severance hotly contested, four men on the commission – Mayor Pro Tem Oscar Elizondo and Commissioners Bobby Carrillo, Edmund Maldonado and Mario Bracamontes – voted instead to reduce it to a 12-month severance. While three others -- Mayor “Amos” Hernandez and Commissioners Eleazar Guajardo and Ricardo Medina -- opposed it.

The real issue was: if Fred Sandoval willingly resigned as city manager in May and declined the city’s job offer as director of the Pharr Economic Development Corporation (EDC), then why should the city pay him anything? The guy quit. If someone voluntarily walks away from a job, why pay them anything?

In a story published last week in The Advance, just prior to Wednesday afternoon’s city commission vote, the mayor said, “I can’t find any where in the history of this city, where someone who has voluntarily resigned from a position has been paid a severance.

"I am opposed to it. It would serve as an exception rather than a rule. I like to treat everyone the same. If we paid Mr. Sandoval a severance, I don’t think it would be fair to everyone else.”

Mayor Pro Tem Oscar Elizondo said that at one point in May, when the city commission first voted on accepting Sandoval’s resignation as city manager, during which he asked for an 18-months severance package if his move to the EDC didn’t work out, Hernandez had mentioned a severance himself, but Elizondo couldn’t really discuss it (since it presumably it took place in executive session.)

Hernandez said he was never in favor of a severance.

In the end, of course, he was outvoted, 4 to 3.

Not only will Sandoval get a 12-month severance package comprised of his base salary of $190,000, but he’ll also get $242,500 on top of that for vacation days not taken during his 18-year tenure with the city as well as sick leave not used. Bringing his total payout to $432,500.

Deduct taxes, and his net payout will come to $256,500.

This week, Commissioner Bobby Carrillo said that at some point in the future, he’d perhaps like to see the city review its current vacation and sick-leave accruement policy. Maybe change it to a one- or two-year rollover, where by, if an employee doesn’t use their vacation time after a period of two years, they lose it. Use it or lose it, in other words. 

Because, some would argue, how can a city possibly budget for an employee who racks up close to 43 weeks of unused vacation pay, as Sandoval is supposed to have done, once they decide to quit? And then the city has to pay for those unused weeks?

After the commission vote last week, there was some speculation that paying Sandoval a severance package was at odds with the state constitution since he voluntarily resigned. In fact, the Texas Constitution prohibits what’s called “gifting.” In other words, public entities can’t simply hand over taxpayer dollars to someone in the form of a gift.

But turns out, according to several legal experts with whom this newspaper spoke, if Sandoval signs release papers promising to absolve the city of all future liabilities, in other words, he won’t take the check and then come back and sue for some sort of damages, then that translates into something of value. And so the severance is not considered a gift.

Said one local city attorney who asked that his name not be mentioned, “It happens all the time at a lot of cities. If a new administration comes in, and it looks as if the former city manager is somehow being forced out, or the new team can’t work with him, then the two parties can come to an understanding: we’ll pay you a severance if you just go away and leave us alone.”

In the case of Sandoval, however, the city offered him the job of EDC director, at an annual salary of $150,000, so how can it be claimed that he was forced out?

“Lawsuits cost money,” said this attorney. 

In other words, right or wrong, anyone can sue anyone or any city for practically anything.

“Sometimes it costs less in the end to just give someone a severance and let the whole business come to a ghastly end. And as long as the former employee signs a release, that’s considered something of value, and the severance doesn’t contradict the state constitution’s prohibition against gifting.”

Another local attorney with loads of experience in city government, who also asked that his name not be quoted for this story, agreed: “As long as he (Sandoval) signs a release before the city hands him that severance check, there’s no problem with regard to any violation of the Texas Constitution.”

There’s one problem, however. Pharr’s mayor, Ambrosio “Amos” Hernandez said late last week that he won’t sign the release papers.

“Let someone else sign them,” he said. “I’m still opposed to the whole thing.”Which shouldn’t be a problem since the city’s mayor pro tem, Oscar Elizondo, is clearly in Sandoval’s corner, and will certainly sign the release papers.

“As long as I’m legally able to sign the release, I’ll do so,” he said earlier this week.

There was another rumor floating around last week that somehow Hernandez had been pressured into putting the severance item on last week’s agenda. Typically, the firs regular July city commission meeting would take place this Tuesday. But because Hernandez is out of town this week on vacation, the regular meeting was pushed back to last Wednesday. Anyone who knows Hernandez, though, would have doubts that the man can be pressured into anything.

Turns out, he wasn’t pressured into it, he said. According to the Pharr city charter, any commissioner has the right to place an item on the city commission meeting agenda. And in fact, it was Elizondo who did place Sandoval’s name on last week’s agenda. In other words, even though the mayor would presumably have liked to stop its progress (the severance package), he couldn’t prevent it from being placed on the agenda.

Asked this week if he was worried that his vote would anger taxpayers/voters, and they’d voice their displeasure next election, 2017, Mayor Pro Tem Oscar Elizondo said no, because no matter what people think now, “Fred will be remembered for all the great things he did for this city.”

For his part, Carrillo said the important thing to consider, too, is that the commission didn’t give Sandoval what he fully wanted – 18 months severance.

“We knocked it down to 12 months.”

At this point, it would be pretty easy to get Elizondo into a war of words with Hernandez. But he says he doesn’t see the point. The two men are clearly at odds with one another.

“I don’t want the city to get back to where it was,” Elizondo said, “with everyone fightin all the time. We don’t agree on this, fine.Let’s put it behind us and move forward.”

But he says he’ll stand by Sandoval’s record as city manager.

“They can say whatever they want about the debts and stuff. The fact for me is that Fred increased sales tax and he increased property tax. In doing that, that severance paid for itself.”

Down the road, though, where the commission may come to odds is what to do about the Produce Park and the Glaser Jackson Road development project. That combined taxpayer debt is worth approximately $23 million.

Look for more on that story next week.

The Advance News Journal has interviewed most of the commission, but not all. Still some questions to ask.

Stay tuned.

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