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La Joya City Council approves settlement in political retaliation case

The La Joya City Council approved a settlement last month with Finance Director Gregoria Jackson, who claimed former Mayor Jose A. “Fito” Salinas fired her for political reasons.

Mayor Isidro Casanova and the City Council unanimously approved the settlement during a meeting on March 29.

“She was wrongfully terminated for political reasons, from what I understand,” said City Councilwoman Angie Garza. “So it’s only right that we do the right thing for her.”

Attorney Carlos E. Hernandez Jr. of McAllen, who represented Gregoria Jackson, and attorney Robert Drinkard of Harlingen, who represented the city, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Documents filed in court don’t provide any details about the settlement. Who will pay Gregoria Jackson — and how much — remains unclear.

La Joya hired Gregoria Jackson in April 2013, when Fito Salinas served on the City Council with his wife, Mary Salinas. Her brother, Roberto Jackson, was the city attorney.

Gregoria Jackson, who earned a master’s degree in English from the University of Texas-Pan American, became the finance director. The job paid $35,000.

She received a stellar performance evaluation in 2017, according to documents released under the Texas Public Information Act.

“Ms. Jackson is a committed employee,” then-city Administrator Mike Alaniz wrote, adding that she had an “outstanding” work ethic.

Documents released by the city don’t show any write-ups or disciplinary action from 2013 to 2019.

In June 2019, though, Alaniz retired. The City Council replaced him with Jacqueline Bazan, a local attorney.

Less than a month later, Bazan decided La Joya didn’t need a finance director.

“You have been terminated because the position of ‘Finance Director’ is being eliminated at the City of La Joya,” according to a memo from Bazan to Gregoria Jackson dated July 29, 2019. “This decision is not reversible.”

The memo doesn’t explain why La Joya, which had employed a finance director for the past six years, eliminated the position.

Gregoria Jackson, however, claimed that La Joya fired her for political reasons.

Her brother, Roberto Jackson, had resigned after becoming concerned about corruption at City Hall.

In 2019, when Fito Salinas ran for re-election, Roberto Jackson decided to support former police Chief Isidro Casanova instead.

Gregoria Jackson claimed she was caught in the middle.

She filed a federal lawsuit against the city, Fito Salinas, Mary Salinas and former City Councilwoman Anna Lisa Ruiz, claiming they violated her First Amendment rights.

“Gregoria Jackson lost her job due to illegal political retaliation,” according to a motion filed by her attorney. “City employees cannot be hired or fired based on who they support or are perceived to support politically, and this termination is in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

Harlingen-based law firm Denton Navarro Rocha Bernal & Zech, which represented the city, claimed her argument didn’t hold water.

“In regard to Plaintiff’s First Amendment claim, Plaintiff admits that she made no speech nor engaged in absolutely no protected First Amendment conduct of her own,” according to a motion filed by the firm. “Plaintiff re-affirms that her First Amendment claim is based solely and completely on her brother’s First Amendment activity; not her own.”

Casanova defeated Fito Salinas in December 2019. Gregoria Jackson got her job back. And Roberto Jackson returned to City Hall, where he reprised his role as city attorney.

In mid-March, attorneys for Gregoria Jackson and the city informed U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa they had reached a settlement.

“I appreciate y’all did this,” Hinojosa said. “Because, obviously, this is a longtime employee — or she’d been there working for a while.”

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