January 25, 2023 956 PM
PRESIDIO — At Friday’s city council meeting, Executive Director Jeran Stephens and President Terry Bishop resigned from their positions on the board of the Presidio Municipal Development District (PMDD), alleging corruption in the city government.
PMDD was created by the Texas Legislature in a bill that took effect on September 1, 2013. The organization is a taxing entity with the goal of growing the town’s economy — there are two executive positions and four member positions on the PMDD board who serve two-year terms and are officially appointed by Presidio City Council.
In their official resignation letter, filed jointly, Bishop and Stephens alleged deep corruption within the City of Presidio — corruption that they felt was inhibiting the city’s economic growth. “That is why Presidio has experienced a shrinking population, loss of business and revenue for a decade and will continue to slide into oblivion,” they wrote. “You cannot have progress or growth with poor ethics, nepotism, cronyism and personal bias.”
More specifically, Bishop and Stephens alleged “violations of the Open Meetings Act,” “violation of Executive Session confidentiality,” “obstruction of necessary investigations by PMDD” and “collusion between certain PMDD board members and the City Secretary.” They were disappointed in the priorities set by the board. “Each attempt to bring new jobs to town has been met with resistance and personal judgements about the type of business or type of work being created,” they wrote.
They were also concerned about the future of the industrial park intended to one day become a part of a free trade zone (FTZ) — a resource tapped into by other border cities. Their research led them to believe there was a long paper trail of “incorrect titles and deeds” that could revert ownership of the park from the city to the state of Texas.
Both Bishop and Stephens declined to comment further on their resignations and the allegations contained in their letter.
The resignations followed a heated discussion earlier in the week, at a January 16 city council meeting, about how best to fill PMDD’s vacancies. The agenda item invited discussion and action on applications “to be received in person” by City Secretary Brenda Lee Ornelas-Acuña.
Before that Monday’s meeting, Ornelas-Acuña had received four applications for two positions, intended to fill the seats of Nancy Arevalo and Terry Bishop, whose terms were approaching their expiration date.
Stephens said that she had only been aware of three applications. The ensuing discussion revealed widespread confusion about how new members should be appointed to the PMDD board — as the process stands, applications are forwarded to Presidio City Council, which wields the power to officially appoint new members.
The open positions were not advertised in the Presidio International, unlike positions like city secretary and administrator that are approved by Council. Other advertised positions include offices up for election — full-term mayors and council members fall under that umbrella.
Some council members were under the impression that the positions needed to be publicly advertised in order to be filled. Stephens disagreed — she argued that her predecessor, Brad Newton, had not left any trace in the organization’s bylaws or financial records of required public postings.
Stephens then said that she needed the positions to be approved that week in order to wrap up important business that required a quorum. There would eventually be a third opening that was less urgent. “If we want to change the rules and post the third spot in the local paper, that’s a conversation we can have,” she said.
Stephens explained that the three openings were intended to replace board members who had resigned in October and November: former board Secretary Lizette Rohana, as well as members Christina Juarez and Patrick Manian. (Neither Juarez or Manian tendered their resignations with the city.)
As a result of the confusion about public postings, council members were hesitant to appoint any of the applicants, only two of whom were present at the meeting. “We don’t even have the applications in our packets,” Arevalo explained. “We want to give everybody a fair opportunity.”
Council ultimately moved to take no action on the appointments and to call an emergency meeting later that week to help Stephens move forward with outstanding board business.
It was at the start of that meeting, held on Friday, that both Bishop and Stephens announced their resignations, handing over their post office keys and disconnecting their business phone lines.
The superquorum gathered at City Hall decided to proceed with the meeting as scheduled and considered the applications of Tiburcio “Butch” Acosta, Michael Darnielle, Juany Rodriguez, Lizette Rohana and Trisha Runyan. Acosta, Darnielle and Rohana attended one or both council meetings in person to demonstrate their commitment.
Darnielle told the Presidio International that he had been personally recommended by Bishop to join the board. He wasn’t aware of the opening on the board before Bishop brought it up, but he jumped at the chance to serve the city — he has deep family roots here and came back after a few years in Indiana. “I love Presidio — I really don’t want to leave again,” he said.
Acosta said that he didn’t hear about the vacancy through public postings but has a long history of public service and business ownership in Presidio. In addition to experience on City Council, he runs the UETA duty-free store as well as a successful barbecue food truck. “I’ve always cared for Presidio — I want to see Presidio grow more businesses,” he said.
One applicant had recent experience on the PMDD board: former Secretary Lizette Rohana, who had resigned in October, asked city officials to be considered to re-join the board so she could finish out her term.
On her application, Rohana attributed her resignation as a “reaction due to stress,” and that she wanted to continue to serve her community. “I was raised on the border and I would love to see this community flourish beautifully and responsibly,” she wrote.
At Friday’s meeting — a meeting that Stephens and Bishop were scheduled to attend before their abrupt resignations — Rohana said she had previously resigned over frustrations with PMDD”s leadership. “The decision I made to resign was due to issues that had been reoccurring for months with the [PMDD] board,” she explained. “I was really frustrated and very stressed, and felt the board had lost its democracy and its voice.”
She explained that the issue that caused her to quit was a perceived lack of board input on how meetings were run. She explained that some board members felt that items they had submitted weren’t making it onto finalized agendas — agendas and meeting times were set by Bishop. “I responded by saying that that was an abuse of power and that I didn’t feel comfortable being a part of this organization,” she said.
When board members expressed concern about how decisions were being made, Rohana felt their complaints weren’t given a fair shake. “We were continuously gaslighted and ignored by the executive director and the board president,” she said. “Those positions of leadership are a big responsibility because we impact the community — we impact peoples’ lives.”
The council members considered the official PMDD bylaws before they made their final call, in an effort to play by rules that had been a source of confusion at the previous meeting. In order to be considered as official bylaws by the City of Presidio the document needed to be signed by all PMDD board members and approved by council.
Councilmember Arevalo said that the previous set of bylaws — written in 2017 — were submitted for formal consideration and approved, but the 2022 bylaws were not. Secretary Ornelas-Acuña agreed and said that the bylaws had never been submitted to her. “I had verbally requested them from Ms. Stephens, and she never followed up on that,” she said.
Council ultimately voted to approve Rohana for a one-year term to fill out the position she had originally been appointed for, and to consider the two other vacancies at a later date.
Voicing her support for a fresh slate at PMDD, Councilmember Arian Velázquez-Ornelas shared her experience serving concurrently as the head of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Just because I’m the one leading those meetings doesn’t mean that there’s just one person making those decisions,” she explained.
Velázquez-Ornelas felt the way forward was encouraging communication between branches of city government to make sure that everyone felt adequately supported — and so that there could be oversight and transparency in their day-to-day operations. “I’m glad we have a new group that can be guided,” she said. “That’s what we’re here for as council members — to guide people.”