EL PASO, Texas - Socorro's City Council is being shaken up.
Judge Stephen Ables ruled Thursday morning that Guillermo "Willie" Madrid and Jesus "Jesse" Gandara Jr. are in office illegally and that they must be removed. Both resigned their positions on council in early February but continued to serve.
The County sued Socorro, alleging the council members extended their terms without ammending the city charter, which would have required a public vote.
The judge agreed with the County.
A Socorro spokesman maintained on Thursday that Socorro thought it could legally extend the terms because of a state law but the judge ruled they misapplied the law.
Both Madrid and Gandara are running for their vacated seats in the May 11 election.
Ables also declared Socorro's annexation process of parts of San Elizario and parts of El Paso County null and void, saying if the city wishes to continue annexation, it must start the process all over again.
The Texas Attorney General rendered an opinion in late January stating that the City of Socorro's extension of City Council terms was not in compliance with the Texas Constitution.
"Under article XI, section ll(a) of the Texas Constitution, a court would likely conclude that a home-rule municipality may not change its city council terms from three years to four years without a charter amendment," Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott wrote in his opinion. "To the extent the City of Socorro's City Council terms exceed four years, they are contrary to article XI, section ll(a) of the Texas Constitution."
In October, then-Socorro Mayor Trini Lopez resigned because he said the City of Socorro was breaking election laws by extending his and others terms of office without bringing the issue to voters.
In an undated letter posted on the City of Socorro website, city officials state their extension of term limits were in compliance.
"The United States Department of Justice and the United States Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights has approved the 2008 City of Socorro Charter Amendments that change the election process in the City of Socorro and approve the December 2011 ordinance/resolution changing the City of Socorro election date from May to November and extending the city council members' terms of office," according to the undated statement.
City of Socorro spokesman Dave Garcia released this statement in January in response to the Texas Attorney General's opinion:
"In 2008, by charter amendment, the City of Socorro went to staggered terms of two to three years. We are flummoxed by today's AG's treatment of the four-year term issue in his opinion. In one section of the opinion, the ruling seems to imply the Legislature exceeded its authority when it authorized cities to move from odd to even-numbered terms to the extent that the selected term exceeds that provided in the City Charter (i.e. moving from three to four-year terms.) On the other and, the opinion clearly concludes that a transition term, as also authorized by the Legislature in Senate Bill 100, may not exceed four years. Since the last municipal election was conducted in 2010, none of the current members of the City Council will exceed four years in office until at least May 2014. Upon further clarity, the City Council will need to examine if then, special elections would then be necessary. This issue is also complicated by an AG opinion which holds that once an entity moves from May to November elections then the entity is prohibited from moving back to May elections. In any situation, the City of Socorro attorneys are confident the city is currently completely compliant."
The entire council was elected in May 2010 and was originally scheduled to be up for election in May 2012.
Council voted to stagger the terms so half of the council would change at one time and they voted to extend members' terms by 18 months.
This is how it changed elections:
Group A - Up for election in Nov. 2013 - Jesse Gandara Jr, Willie Madrid, Trini Lopez (now vacant)
Group B - Up for election Nov. 2014 - Gloria Rodriguez, Maria Reyes, Mary Garcia (this group is scheduled to be in office 4.5 years)
"Whether or not an elected official is properly holding office is a serious question. My office is reviewing the attorney general's opinion and will respond appropriately," El Paso District Attorney Jaime Esparza said in a statement in late January.
Socorro's annexation obstacles
On Feb. 11, Ables extended an injunction sought by the county that voids any decision made by Socorro on the matter until April 25.
The injunction was sought by county attorney Jo Anne Bernal, who claims several Socorro City Council members violated the Texas Constitution by extending their terms without a public vote. Records show Socorro council members approved the term extensions as an ordinance, but term extensions require a voter-approved amendment to the city charter.