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Former municipal judge threatens Mission with lawsuit

Former Associate Municipal Judge Horacio Peña Jr. penned a scathing letter to members of the City Council last week, threatening them with a lawsuit unless Mission paid him about $146,000.

The City Council didn’t extend Peña’s employment contract April 8, unceremoniously booting him from the bench after 32 years.

City of Mission logoDuring the past three decades, Peña had banked about 3,800 hours of sick and vacation time. Mission refused to pay him the cash value of the unused hours.

“I put in my time. I was a loyal employee,” Peña said. “And now I’m asking that they pay my leave, pursuant to the policy. They said no.”

Mission paid Peña about $63,600 annually, according to city salary records. His last paycheck showed 1,727.49 hours of sick time and 2,101 hours of vacation time.

Cutting him a check for the remaining sick and vacation hours would cost Mission about $146,000.

Peña sent city Finance Director Angie Vela and city Human Resources Director Noemi Munguia a letter on April 10, requesting payment for the remaining sick and vacation time.

The letter triggered a lengthy back-and-forth between Peña and Interim City Attorney Robert L. Galligan.

“Based on the facts and the relevant law, the City of Mission has determined that you are not entitled to be paid for any vacation or sick leave that you may have accrued, if any, during your tenure as an assistant municipal judge,” according to a letter from Galligan to Peña dated April 26. “This decision is based solely on the facts and the law. As a governmental entity, the City of Mission has an obligation to treat every employee fairly and equally and cannot ignore its own Policy Manual.”

Poor recordkeeping apparently hampered the city’s ability to determine whether or not past administrations had promised to compensate Peña for sick and vacation time.

The city, however, did track down paperwork from August 2005, when Peña took a leave of absence to serve as a state district judge.

“The same form indicates that you are classified as a ‘Part-time Mun. Court Judge,’” according to the letter. “Another employee change of status form, dated January 2, 2007, reveals that you were being re-hired and were coming off of your leave of absence. This form also indicates that you were a ‘regular part-time’ employee.”

Peña said he never worked part-time.

“I know they’re claiming that, but that’s not the way it happened,” Peña said.

For years, he served as the only municipal judge in Mission. Peña handled everything from traffic citations to signing arrest warrants. He worked nights, weekends and holidays, whenever the city needed a judge.

“They set up the rules. I worked, gave them my time and effort,” Peña said. “There were years I didn’t take vacation. Even when I was sick, I worked because I was the only judge available.”

Peña sent the City Council a 10-page letter, providing a history of his work for Mission.

The letter accuses City Councilwoman Jessica Ortega Ochoa and City Councilman Gus Martinez of targeting him for political reasons.

“It was no secret that I supported former Mayor Norberto Salinas in his re-election for Mayor of Mission against Mayor Armando O’Caña and I supported Julian Gonzalez for Commissioner, Place 4 against Gus Martinez,” according to the letter Peña sent to Galligan on May 3. “I was advised by several City employees and residents that they had been told by Commissioner Gus Martinez that should he win the election, I ‘was out’ as an Assistant Judge for the City of Mission.”

Peña warned Galligan that he would file a lawsuit unless Mission paid him for the unused hours.

“In conclusion, considering my reputation and that of the current administration whose election is fraught with suspicious voter practices, rumors and legal proceedings, I believe that a jury would rule in my favor,” Peña wrote.

Asked about the May 3 letter, Martinez said the accusations didn’t hold water.

“His allegations are wild, twisted and unfounded,” Martinez said in a statement. “As an attorney, he should realize that his position was simply not renewed. And as a citizen of Mission, he should appreciate the City trimming a non-essential employee, especially on the heels of our financial audit.”

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