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Judge dismisses political retaliation lawsuit against Peñitas

Nearly two years after a policewoman filed a federal lawsuit against Peñitas — claiming the city fired her for conducting traffic stops on the mayor and his father-in-law — a judge dismissed her case.

Former Peñitas police Officer Melissa Cantu filed the lawsuit in November 2016, alleging that City Manager Omar Romero asked her to stop ticketing city officials for minor traffic offenses.

City of Penitas logoCantu refused. The city fired her less than two months later.

After her attorney quit in November 2017, though, Cantu didn’t hire a new lawyer. The case stalled, and U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez dismissed the lawsuit on Aug. 7 for lack of prosecution.

“From the very beginning, I felt it was just basically a disgruntled employee suing the city,” Romero said. “I never took the case very seriously because I knew all the allegations were false.”

The City Council wanted officers to focus on community policing, Romero said, adding that he had frank discussions with officers about being friendly and courteous to citizens.

“And she just never wanted to go along with that,” Romero said. “Fought it at every turn. Would make comments that were unnecessary. Would argue and be insubordinate. Even with the chief.”

Cantu started working for the Peñitas Police Department as a dispatcher in December 2010, according to Texas Commission on Law Enforcement records. After graduating from the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council police academy, Cantu became a patrol officer in January 2015.

Romero asked her to avoid conducting traffic stops on city officials “because he would just give the citation to the judge and get it dismissed,” according to the lawsuit. The comment upset Cantu.

“I would rather be terminated for doing my job than be employed and be their puppet,” Cantu said in a statement. “I refused to be a puppet of city politics.”

In January 2016, she stopped Mayor Rodrigo “Rigo” Lopez for speeding. Cantu warned him, but she didn’t write a citation.

Weeks later, she cited the mayor’s father-in-law, David Ramirez, for driving on the shoulder.

“He told her that it was pointless to cite him because he is the father-in-law of the mayor and the citation would just get dismissed,” according to the lawsuit. “She stated that she would continue issuing the citation since that is her job, and it is not her concern what happens in court.”

Cantu tangled with city administrators again on Feb. 13, when the police department assigned her to check street vendors for permits.

Cantu cited a woman for selling Valentine’s Day gift baskets without a permit. The woman, however, claimed the mayor personally granted her permission.

The citation caused a kerfuffle at City Hall.

Romero accused Cantu of treating the woman rudely and refusing to follow instructions from the city.

The woman, who works as a custodian, couldn’t stop by City Hall to complete the paperwork during normal business hours. She called the mayor for help, Romero said, and the mayor worked with City Hall to grant her permission.

“That was basically the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Romero said, adding that Cantu refused to apologize or withdraw the citation.

Police Chief Roel Bermea fired Cantu on Feb. 22, 2016.

She filed the lawsuit roughly nine months later, claiming the city wrongfully terminated her and requesting at least $200,000 in damages.

“It’s a classic example of David vs. Goliath,” Cantu said in a statement. “Attorneys are expensive. Lawsuits are exhausting. I’m at a point in my career and life where I just want to put this behind me.”

After filing the lawsuit, Cantu moved to Central Texas, where she took a job with the Lometa Police Department. The city promoted her to police chief last month.

“My kids are happy, I’m happy,” Cantu said in the statement. “Leaving the Valley has been the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. I get to be the chief of police in a community that supports law enforcement by providing information in cases when crimes are committed in a timely manner. Having a personal relationship with members of the community and knowing that they can trust us to report crimes is personally satisfying.”

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