By FRANCISCO E. JIMENEZ & MICHAEL RODRIGUEZ
San Benito News
A candidate in the local school board election as well as many in the community expressed concern this week after members of the San Benito City Commission allegedly enforced a city ordinance that has not yet been enacted when instructing political hopefuls to move their campaign signs further from a polling location.
Steve Rodriguez, Place 7 candidate in the race for the San Benito CISD Board of Trustees, said he was initially confused when recently asked by Mayor Joe H. Hernandez and Pl. 1 City Commissioner Antonio “Tony” Gonzales to move Rodriguez’ trailer, which is affixed with political signs, further away from the Community Building poll.
Both Hernandez and Gonzales are also campaigning for re-election at the Community Building.
According to the Pl. 7 hopeful, Hernandez and Gonzales said Rodriguez may not be in compliance with a new ordinance that, at that time, had not yet been approved by the City Commission. Specifically, Rodriguez said he was informed that said ordinance would change the campaigning distance from the Community Building poll about 13 parking spaces from the front entrance; the original distance is 10 spaces.
“Everybody is saying that it’s kind of fishy,” Rodriguez said Wednesday. “Last night, they were saying that I had my trailer on the 10th (parking) spot, and that we were okay because that line is there… that imaginary line that they spray-paint to show the distance from the door. Today, I heard there is a new ordinance coming out saying that we have to be on the 13th spot.”
Rodriguez said he inquired about the ordinance and understood that although it had not yet been voted on by the Commission, Hernandez and Gonzales anticipated approval when asking Rodriguez to comply.
“Tony Gonzales was there, and I asked him, ‘This ordinance already passed or you’re going to pass it?’” Rodriguez recalled of his conversation with the Pl. 1 Commission incumbent. “He said that they (Commissioners) already had the first reading (of the ordinance) and that they’re going to have the second reading, so it’s going to pass. It doesn’t sound right. I can understand if it was for the following election, but three days before the election everything changes? How is that?”
Furthermore, Rodriguez said the mayor told him something similar.
“The mayor called me out of courtesy saying that I was supposed to move it to not be out of compliance, and that was when it was 10 spaces in between (the polling location and the nearest campaign signs),” Rodriguez said. “It’s not that I dislike anybody. I have nothing against the mayor or against Tony. I just wanted to be in compliance.”
Meanwhile, Hernandez, whose political trailer was already parked on the 13th spot and became the most visible once Rodriguez moved elsewhere, called Rodriguez’ concerns “uncalled-for.”
“That is totally wrong and uncalled-for,” Hernandez said. “We told him (Rodriguez) that we had a city ordinance in place that we were going take action on, but we didn’t know what kind of action we were going to take, and we were just giving him heads-up. That’s all.”
On Wednesday, the San Benito News was inundated with phone calls, emails and Facebook messages from citizens and other political candidates, many of whom wished to speak anonymously, also expressing concern with the alleged enforcing of an ordinance that is not yet city law.
Jesus “Chuy” Aguilera, who was also present at the Community Building this week to help his daughter June – a school board candidate – set up her trailer and political signs, reportedly witnessed the exchange between Rodriguez and the City officials and disagreed with what occurred.
“The problem I have is that (City Secretary) Lupita Passement gave orders before they were able to vote on the ordinance,” Aguilera said, referring to City officials requesting the assistance of the San Benito Police Department to inform the candidates of the pending ordinance and the possibility that the hopefuls may need to move their vehicles and signs if not in compliance with the mandate.
“That’s what was told to me,” Aguilera said. “The last time I saw, we were still in a democracy because we’re in the United States, not a dictatorship. Things got resolved. I think it was going to happen, but you can’t just say things before a vote is taken. You can’t assume that they’re going to pass it and have people move their vehicles.”
Assistant City Manager Arturo Rodriguez sees things differently.
“They weren’t enforcing it but informing people that there was a city ordinance that was going to come up,” the assistant city manager said of the SBPD’s involvement. “Instead of having to hunt people down at the last minute, they were trying to make sure they had the right contacts.”
If approved, Ordinance No. 2514 will designate a portion of the 200 block of East Heywood Street in front of the Community Building for voter parking on Election Day, which is scheduled for Saturday, May 10.
Commissioners are expected to consider the second reading of the ordinance – the first reading was approved in April – at a special meeting scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 8 at the San Benito Municipal Building.
When the matter was brought to the attention of City Manager Manuel Lara, he acknowledged the public’s concerns and welcomed candidates to move their vehicles back until a decision is made by the Commission.
“We cannot enforce it,” Lara said of the ordinance. “It is not an enforceable ordinance at this point, so they don’t have to move anything. If it was to pass, we would advise them (the candidates) on Friday.”
Lara further noted that the ordinance was considered after citizens complained of little parking at the poll. “We’re only going to use one location (as a poll) this year,” Lara said. “We’re not going to have Fire Station No. 2 or Fred Booth. This year we’re going to do everything at the community center, so we anticipate a very large group coming in and trying to go vote.”
The city manager then explained that Passement, who serves as the City’s election officer, had requested the new ordinance to get additional parking for voters.
The ordinance, according to Lara, was originally up for consideration at a May 6 meeting but was not discussed due to a lack of quorum.
But Hernandez said on Thursday that he has second thoughts about approving the ordinance.
“The requirement it’s calling for is really outrageous, because they’re saying the perimeter around the building is supposed to be 100 feet from the door, and it’s calling for 13 parking areas from both sides and that extends the parking for a candidate like another 100 feet away as well,” Hernandez said. “I’m not very satisfied with it myself. We’re going to have some questions and I’m going to recommend to the commission that we table the item until after elections, because I don’t want those candidates thinking that it’s coming from me or any member of this Commission. I definitely am going to speak against it.”
Still, there are those who remain concerned with the Commission’s voting process.
“It’s hard for me to conceive that people are going out there and enforcing an ordinance that has not been passed, because that tells me that you’ve already made a decision, which violates the open meetings act,” said Fred Garza, a longtime resident of San Benito who has served on the boards of numerous civic organizations. Garza, who also served as a poll watcher during early voting in San Benito, added the following: “If they already knew something then collusion was already done, and that could bring serious consequences.”
Attempts to reach Gonzales for comment were unsuccessful as of 2:30 p.m. Thursday.
Pick up a copy of the May 11 edition of the San Benito News, or subscribe to our E-Edition by clicking here, to find out how the San Benito City Commission voted on Ordinance No. 2514.