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Case Closed: Vinton council members take settlement in state removal case before trial

By: Genevieve Curtis

VINTON, Texas -- Almost a year after a lawsuit sought to remove three Vinton council members from office for alleged incompetence, ignorance and carelessness, they settled out of court before going to trial.

Juvencia Rios Ontiveros, Martha Garcia and Maria Medina signed settlement agreements and Judge Stephen Ables signed off on them.

"I feel relieved. Maybe this way we can actually start doing something and get ahead," said resident Andre Pacheco.

In the agreements, the three agree not to run for council in the November 2013 election and not to seek any office for two years.

District Attorney Jaime Esparza described it as the best possible outcome, barring immediate removal because the result is what they would have hoped to have at the end of a trial.

"We get what we want. We get them out of the office they currently hold. Mostly, they won't run for re-election and I think that will allow city council to do the business that they want to do," said Esparza.

The three council members made headlines for refusing to accept millions to bring water and sewer to the village. They also failed to pass a budget last year and again this year.

"I think the damage done by these three ladies is irreparable at this time, it has set us back three to four years in progress," said Mayor Madeleine Praino.

In October of 2012 two village residents, Brady Gardes and Robert Williams filed a petition to remove the three from office. At the time it was the only way a type 'A' municipality like Vinton could remove elected officials. State law has since changed as a result of the problems in Vinton.

"We ended up doing a petition because it looked like there was nobody in the state of Texas that could do anything. The removal petition was an option of last result and we didn't get heard and we haven't been heard in two-and-a-half years," said Williams.

The nearly 50-page lawsuit contained allegations of dozens of state and federal violations by the trio.

"One of the things I wanted to accomplish with this was to send a message to this council, any future council and any council across the state of Texas: You have to follow the law. It's not what you think is right. It's not what you think is fair. You have to base your decision on the law, and that's one of the things that has been totally disregarded and put aside," said Williams.

Even with the case now closed, some are not thrilled with the end result.

"I would have rather had this heard in a court, with a jury, and the court of public opinion because there are things that have happened in the last two-and-a-half years, and especially in the last year, that really should have come out," said Williams.

But Esparza said the settlement is a guaranteed outcome, whereas had they gone to trial they may not have gotten that. Additionally a trial could have resulted in appeals and an immediate removal may not have been as quick as it reads on paper.

"It allows the community of Vinton to move forward. They are removed in the sense that they won't run for office and they won't run for two years," said Esparza.

When asked if he felt if the prosecution had enough evidence to convict, Esparza said he really couldn't speculate.

"I think that agreement speaks for itself. I think this was probably the best resolution for the community of Vinton," said Esparza.

The removal process dragged on for nearly a year and saw the trial pushed back from July to October this year. Esparza admitted the uniqueness in the case may have contributed to the time it took to resolve.

It left some feeling frustrated.

"I feel the D.A.'s office should have been more diligent in their approach. I feel it is a let-down in the sense because when people like them try to ruin the town, any town, I don't think justice should take its sweet time to remove them. Because the damage is astronomical," said Praino.

Esparza admitted things may have taken awhile. The case is the first of its kind in the state of Texas, which made it all the more complex.

"I think its uniqueness slowed the process down a bit. I think knowing the complexities and the uniqueness of the issues, I think that the time that we used here was OK. It wasn't the best, but knowing the outcome, at least from our point of view, was a good outcome," said Esparza.

Esparza said the removal process is never easy.

"We believe in the elected process, as a society we are very cautious of turning something outside of an election because we believe when the people speak, they speak," said Esparza.

Vinton's mayor echoed that sentiment.

"I hope the people of Vinton have learned a lesson in knowing who your candidates are," said Praino.

KFOX14 reached out to the lawyers who represent the council members. Ontiveros' attorney, Jim Darnell, said she took the plea deal because she plans to retire.

Part of the settlement agreement for Ontiveros also includes an eventual dismissal of a criminal complaint of felony retaliation/obstruction.

Garcia told KFOX14 to contact her lawyer, Doris Sipes for a comment but when KFOX14 called, a woman on the phone said Sipes does not make comments to the 'press.'

Spencer, Medina's attorney, did not return calls for comment but was in trial during the day.

Residents said with the three gone from office, it allows the village to close a chapter and move forward. "I wish they would have said don't ever run for office, ever again, really," said Pacheco.

Three new council members will take their seats in November. Praino said they will wait until that happens to pass a budget.



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