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Lawsuit: Former school district chief alleges termination was politically motivated

November 12, 2016 GMT

RIO GRANDE CITY — Another lawsuit has been filed against the Rio Grande City school district, this time regarding the school district police chief who was terminated in February.

Hernan Garza III, the former police chief, filed a suit against some of the school board members in federal court alleging they violated his due process rights, his First Amendment rights and violated the Texas Open Meetings Act when they voted to terminate him.

One of the attorneys for the district, Alyssa Romero, said the board members absolutely denied Garza’s allegation that his firing was for political reasons.

However, she said they could not comment because they had not been served as of Thursday.

Garza accused the school board members who were elected in 2014 as part of Team Change, the members who politically aligned with them, and then-Superintendent Joel Trigo of terminating him for purely political reasons.

“ After being sworn in Team Change set about on a campaign to reward those employees who were politically affiliated with them or assisted and openly supported their campaign,” the complaint alleges. “They also set about retaliating against those employees who had either not supported their faction or those whom they perceive did not support their faction.”

Garza said because of his position as an elected official within Rio Grande City, Team Change considers him a political rival. Garza is currently mayor pro-tempore of the city.

“ The termination of Plaintiff was based on his perceived association with Defendants’ political rivals and constituted unlawful retaliation on the basis of Plaintiffs speech and right to association as is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” the lawsuit states.

At the time, the board members stated Garza was fired because he failed to act on reports of inappropriate student-teacher relations.

In the suit, Garza alleges he always provided justification for his actions.

He also accused board members of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act when they voted to terminate him because the meeting agenda stated they might take action to propose his termination as opposed to actually terminate him.

In Chapter 21 of the Texas Education Code, a proposal for termination is taken to give the employee enough notice. However, Romero said Garza did not have a chapter 21 contract; therefore, those requirements did not apply to him.

“ This was somewhat of a typo on the agenda but, based on the surrounding facts, they gave him sufficient notice,” she said.

But Ivan Perez, the attorney representing Garza, said the former chief was still entitled to due process.

“ When you’re employed by a governmental entity, such as the RGCCISD, you are entitled to certain procedural rights prior to action taken to terminate,” he said. Perez said Garza was never told the basis for his termination only that an investigation was taking place, which he said Garza was not even allowed to participate in.

“ He’s entitled to know what the allegations are,” Perez said. “He’s entitled to know who the witnesses are, and he’s entitled to a hearing before the board.”

After his termination, Garza filed a grievance requesting to be reinstated, but the board denied it in July. He has now filed a petition, which is under consideration with the Texas Education Agency, according to Romero.

A pre-trial conference has been set for February.

bereniceg@themonitor.com