Lawsuit against Presidio County gets court date after mediation fails

PRESIDIO COUNTY — At Presidio County Commissioners Court last week, Judge Cinderela Guevara updated elected officials, county staff and the public about the ongoing civil case brought by Mary Catherine “Katie” Sanchez against Presidio County, Texas, and current County Treasurer Frances Garcia.

Guevara said that in October, Sanchez, defendants and a few other witnesses were deposed as part of regular discovery in the case. It was another step in the ongoing federal suit that began in July 2019, when Sanchez alleged in court filings that the elimination of the county’s Office of Management and Budget — and thus, her role as the department’s director — came about because of political retaliation.

Sanchez had sought office as treasurer of the county in 2018, but lost to Garcia, the incumbent, who is named in her own capacity as a defendant in the case.

The suit alleges that after losing to Garcia, Sanchez’s constitutionally protected candidacy for office turned into “a motivating factor in the elimination of the Office of Management and Budget, and her position as its director.” Sanchez had worked for the county since 2011 as a contract employee and as a permanent employee since November 2014.

Two months after her election loss, Sanchez’s office was eliminated when then-Commissioner Loretto Vasquez put it on the agenda as a money saving endeavor, and commissioners voted 4-1 to get rid of the department. Vasquez, along with current commissioners Eloy Aranda, Jose Cabezuela and Brenda Bentley, approved the cutting of the office.

Only Judge Guevara dissented. Buddy Knight, the incoming commissioner that was about to assume Vasquez’s seat, said the move had “the appearance of political retribution.”

The county’s external auditor Doak Painter questioned the explanation that the move was financially-motivated, saying during his 2019 audit report, “I didn’t understand why they said they were getting rid of OMB to save money and then turned around and gave everybody raises.”

In a letter read to commissioners in August 2018 before the vote to eliminate the office, County Attorney Rod Ponton alleged that “Garcia and others are lobbying the county commissioners to abolish the Office of Management & Budget.” The right to run for office is guaranteed under the First Amendment – and soon Sanchez would allege her constitutional rights had been violated.

Ponton warned the move could have “the potential appearance of political retaliation” and might lead to litigation that “would certainly wind its way through the courts in a protracted and expensive manner,” even if Sanchez ultimately does not win her case.

Should she win her case, the cost to the county would go even higher. In the suit, Sanchez is seeking back pay and benefits, as well as front pay, compensatory damages, and other compensations, as well as punitive damages against Garcia only.

Sanchez’s case alleges Garcia “knew or should have known that retaliating against a political opponent who was also a county employee was illegal.”

Last month, as the holidays rolled around, an update in the case was filed. Chris Antcliff of Antcliff Mediation provided a letter to U.S. District Judge David Counts that stated an attempt to reach an agreement through mediation had failed.

Jon Hogg, an attorney representing the county, said a motion for summary judgement was pending. Depending what the judge decides, the case could proceed as it is, be dismissed completely or be dismissed in-part, narrowing the issues for trial.

According to Guevara, the case has received a court date set for June 22, pending the outcome of the summary judgement.