Interim executive director abandons temporary restraining order against La Joya Housing Authority

Interim Executive Director Frances Salinas allowed her temporary restraining order against the La Joya Housing Authority to expire Monday without a fight.

Attorney Dennis Ramirez of Donna, who represents her, announced that he wouldn’t ask Hidalgo County Court-at-Law Judge Albert Garcia to renew the temporary restraining order, which blocked the housing authority from “taking any action to discuss and/or terminate the employment of Frances A. Salinas.”

FrancesSalinasWithout the temporary restraining order hanging over them, members of the housing authority board may hold a meeting Thursday to terminate Frances Salinas — again.

“She is in limbo, as an unpaid volunteer, until we are actually able to post a 72 hour notice to move forward with termination,” said Acting Executive Director Cristi LaJeunesse.

While she technically remains the interim executive director, Frances Salinas can’t access the housing authority building, bank account or computer systems.

“She still has that title,” said attorney Tim Daniels of San Antonio, who represents the housing authority. “But it’s without any power, without any authority, without any access to bank accounts due to the board’s concerns.”

Frances Salinas, 51, of La Joya — the daughter of La Joya Mayor Jose A. “Fito” Salinas and City Commissioner Mary Salinas — is well known in western Hidalgo County.

Along with heading the La Joya Housing Authority, she serves on the La Joya school board and represents Precinct 11 for the Hidalgo County Democratic Party.

In September 2016, when Frances Salinas served as chairwoman of the housing authority board, federal agents arrested Executive Director Juan Jose “J.J.” Garza on wire fraud charges. The board fired him three months later.

Frances Salinas assumed control of the housing authority, assigning tasks to staff and managing day-to-day operations.

She resigned from the board to become interim executive director on Feb. 13, 2017, according to meeting minutes released under the Texas Public Information Act.

After taking the job, Frances Salinas wanted a paycheck. Garza had earned $63,000 annually, according to personnel records.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, however, deemed her ineligible for the job.

Federal regulations require anyone who serves on a housing authority board to wait a year before contracting with that housing authority.

Frances Salinas also faced another hurdle.

Her father, Mayor Salinas, appoints the housing authority board, which employs the executive director. HUD considered the situation a clear conflict of interest and refused to pay Frances Salinas with federal money.

The housing authority asked for a waiver, but HUD rejected the request.

“And that denial letter was never shared with any of the board members,” LaJeunesse said, adding that then-board Chairman John Pena apparently didn’t share the letter with them.

Pena couldn’t be reached for comment after the hearing.

Concerns about the conflict of interest didn’t surface until Oct. 10, when the board called a meeting and abruptly fired Frances Salinas.

Board members said they were deeply concerned by a lengthy letter from HUD, which warned about poorly maintained apartments, a budget deficit and management problems.

“Overall, we have serious concerns on how the Authority is being managed by the staff and overseen by the Board of Commissioners,” according to the June 29 letter from HUD to Frances Salinas. “The Authority will need to develop a recovery plan to improve their physical condition and financial viability or consider transferring the program to a neighboring Agency with the administrative capacity and assets to operate a viable program.”

LaJeunesse uncovered additional problems, including checks Frances Salinas wrote to herself, cash withdrawals from housing authority bank accounts and travel expenses that lacked documentation.

The next day, though, Frances Salinas sent Mayor Salinas a letter, claiming she didn’t post the agenda 72 hours before the meeting.

“While under pressure to create and expedite our meeting, I lost track of time and advertised the Certificate of Posting in less than 72 hours, which is required by law,” according to the Oct. 11 letter from Frances Salinas to her father.

When the board called a meeting to fix her mistake, Frances Salinas filed a lawsuit. She accused the housing authority of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act and asked for a temporary restraining order.

“It was presented, if I understand, shortly before the Oct. 15, 2018, board meeting. There’s insufficient time, in that situation — from my experience in dealing with these types of matters — for a judge to fully grasp all of the legal issues,” Daniels said. “For example, the right of the board to ratify or rectify or correct a mistake from an earlier board meeting. Does the judge stop and have time to research all that before a meeting is scheduled to take place?”

Blocked from fixing the mistake, the board attempted to defang the lawsuit.

Members met on Saturday and voided all action taken on Oct. 10, including the decision to terminate Frances Salinas.

“That’s an ambush to come to the court and say ‘Hey judge, everything that they’re complaining about, we resolved it two days ago,’” said Ramirez, the attorney who represents Frances Salinas, adding that he filed the lawsuit before the board reversed itself. “And for them to take that course of action is unfair and prejudicial.”

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