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Mabton police chief still on the job, despite Council's wishes

MABTON - It looks like Mabton Police Chief Robert Perales is still on the job, despite the fact that his part-time position was cut during the 2009 budget process. But perhaps the most baffling thing is the reason why: because Mabton Mayor Velva Herrera said so.

Herrera issued a directive to all city personnel on Dec. 31, 2008, the day after Mabton's City Council unanimously approved its 2009 budget, including the police chief cut.

In her memo, Herrera says she consulted with the city's personnel attorney. The city's only attorney is Jack Maxwell, but the city does have Kevin Wesely hired as consultant for union matters.

Herrera doesn't quantify her reason for keeping Perales on until further notice from her office, other than her statement that maintaining a functioning police department is her "utmost concern." Herrera said in the memo, "Public safety is a primary function of any city operation and I cannot in good faith place in any danger the citizens of Mabton."

Perhaps one complicating factor is the fact that Perales and Mabton City Clerk Kitty Zavala voted for union representation several months ago. Herrera decided not to inform city council until the city's 60 days to appeal the union representation were up. Whether or not this factored into her decision Herrera did not say.

City Councilmen Mario Martinez and Angel Reyna have called a special meeting for tomorrow night, Tuesday, at 6 p.m. to discuss Herrera's decision. They are also expected to adopt the 2009 wage and position-setting ordinance, which at this time does not include Perales's position.

Part of tomorrow night's meeting will be executive session, but the council will have to approve the wage and position setting ordinances in an open meeting.

Martinez said, "We're just going to keep going forward with what we need to do. If she opts to go forward, she's breaking the law. The ordinance (setting the budget) is the law."

Perales has claimed retaliation is the motive behind council's unanimous decision to eliminate his position, something Martinez staunchly denies.

"We passed the budget we felt was necessary," he said.

Martinez said that Mabton has had a problem for years with overspending and council wants it to stop. "We've totally drained our beginning balances. We're in the negative. We can't operate like that anymore. Our funds are struggling, even with utility tax increases."

Martinez said there is particular concern down the road with necessary infrastructure and wastewater treatment plant upgrades. "We need to have money available to match any grant funding that's available."

He added, "We're at a point right now where have to learn how to operate on the bare minimum. County, state and national (funds)...there is no pot of gold!"

When council members approved the budget on Dec. 30, Martinez cited a 1995 ordinance that states the city is not to have a police chief, but rather a chief of operations in the police department. He told Herrera that current officers qualify for the position, but Herrera insists they do not.

Martinez blames Herrera, the "Chief Executive Officer," as he refers to it, for Mabton's financial woes, saying that she has approved expenditures without knowing fund balances.

"There's been a lack of oversight, a lack of internal control. As a CEO, it isn't just your duty to trust people. It's your duty to make sure things get done right."

Herrera did not return several calls seeking comment.

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