GREGORY – During a virtual Gregory City Council meeting held on Sept. 8, things got heated, and more questions than answers were brought to the surface.
After the council took no action on an agenda item, it was brought back for a vote which ultimately led to Gregory Mayor Celestino Zambrano resigning.
“As mayor, I am obligated to follow the rules set by ordinance and local government codes,” Celestino said in a statement. “At the council meeting held on Sept. 8, 2020, the city council voted on an ordinance to (temporarily) disband the Planning and Zoning Commission due to lack of members on the commission, even though three applicants applied to fill the vacancies, but were denied by a three to two vote.”
During the virtual city council meeting, Alderman Pablo Martinez asked why the last agenda item submitted, to appoint applicants to the Planning and Zoning Commission, was placed on the agenda as the fourth action item. The seventh action item was the call for action to adopt the ordinance to disband that very commission.
There was talk of moving the item further back in the agenda with Alderwoman Kristina Zambrano, the mayor’s daughter, visibly growing bothered and saying, “What’s the issue? Seriously guys, what’s the issue? Why do you want to move it?”
Agenda Items 4, 6 and 7, all dealing with the Planning and Zoning Commission, were moved together after the fifth item was agreed to be discussed next.
K. Zambrano and Alderman Christopher Flores had a heated exchange before C. Zambrano pushed on to continue the meeting.
The action item to review and amend the Zoning Ordinance was tabled by Martinez because public hearings were needed.
During the agenda item to temporarily disband the commission, Martinez stated his reason for adding that on the agenda was because there were only two members on the board. At least three are needed to have a quorum and move city projects further.
The mayor said, “The city has been making efforts to recruit people to volunteer for the board.”
He added that the council, as well the mayor, have the responsibility to appoint people to that board. K. Zambrano also brought up the fact that there were three residents that signed up to fill the empty positions so disbanding the commission wouldn’t be necessary.
Martinez said the council has been wanting a quorum since February but for some reason the commission members, when they had three, didn’t all show up.
“To me it just seems like a game is being played and because there isn’t enough members it needs to be disbanded,” Martinez said.
City Attorney Allison Bastian-Rodriguez had to speak up and remind the council that they were not actually on the item to disband the commission but on the one to approve three volunteers that agreed to join the commission. She said the council needed to vote on that item before moving on.
While waiting for two of the volunteers to speak via phone, Martinez said he didn’t feel comfortable bringing in these new applicants at the moment until they show more interest.
“So council member Martinez, we’re going to deny citizens of our community that are willing to serve on a board when we’ve asked for volunteers on our website, asked for it on our newsletter. So, we’re denying our community members the right to serve on a board because you’re not comfortable with their commitment.
“I’m very uncomfortable right now with why you don’t want people to serve on the board.”
Martinez replied, “You can put all the words you want in my mouth Kristy, but a game is being played.
“Since Day 1, we’ve been wanting to move forward with certain projects coming in, but for some reason they can’t have a quorum. They’re being coached or asked to – ”
K. Zambrano interrupted and said he was making accusations and assuming about them being coached. She said it was because of COVID-19 and some of them had gotten sick or had issues and had to resign.
Martinez and K. Zambrano continued to argue until C. Zambrano intervened.
Martinez then asked why the attorney was even there to which she answered because there were planning and zoning items on the agenda.
Martinez, Alderman Christopher Flores, and Alderman Alvaro Lopez Jr. voted against adding members.
When the item of disbanding the Planning and Zoning Commission or amending the zoning ordinance came up, no action was taken. Attorney John Bell could be seen on the screen with a look of disbelief.
Bell represents a company looking at an area in Gregory to build an RV park just off the highway.
Things then began to get strange.
In the Zoom video, which was recorded and is available on mysoutex.com, it appears that Bell then grabbed his phone and began texting for a few moments before returning his attention to the meeting.
Martinez then appears to reach for his phone – which can be seen in the reflection of his glasses – and appears to begin reading and then text messaging. The two men then turn their attention downwards, possibly to their phones, as the meeting continues.
When Bell was contacted and asked if he was, in fact, texting Martinez during the meeting, he replied after a long pause, “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.
“I just don’t recall, you got me there.”
He did say he remembered talking to Martinez before and after the meeting and has talked to him quite a few times throughout the year.
Martinez had not respond as of press time.
After more than 10 minutes, both men returned their attention to the meeting and, 16 minutes after initially agreeing to take no action on disbanding the Planning and Zoning Commission, Martinez brought the item back to the council and said, “I’m not comfortable with having the (Planning and Zoning Commission) on board.
“I would like to disband the planning and zoning board, temporarily, so we can move forward.”
K. Zambrano then asked if they could discuss the issue during a workshop.
But Martinez said he wanted to take action on the item.
K. Zambrano said, “Councilman Martinez, I just want to make sure that no pressure is being put on you by anybody else.”
Martinez answered no and said it was up to the council to agree to bring the item back for a vote.
K. Zambrano asked Bell if he had advised Martinez in making this decision and he answered no, but they have talked before. She asked if he was advising members of the council or soliciting a vote.
“I do everything according to the law and according to the book,” Bell said. “I’ve been talking to the city secretary since February to try and get consideration and the issue now is that you have a planning and zoning commission that won’t meet with consideration being made and we just need to move on.”
Both Martinez and Bell said there were no secrets or anything going on except trying to get Gregory moving.
The council voted to disband the Planning and Zoning Commission.
In his resignation letter, Mayor Zambrano said he did not agree to their decision to disband the commission and sent a letter of objection to the council about the ordinance passed two days prior.
In the objection letter, he stated the ordinance disbanding the Planning and Zoning Commission wasn’t necessary when there were individuals willing to serve on the board in order to keep operations moving forward, but they were denied by the city council. The two members were also members of his family.
Zambrano said the adoption of said ordinance was controversial because Bell represents the developers of an RV Park looking to start construction and Attorney Allison Bastian-Rodriguez, who specializes in municipal law and represents the special council, disagreed with the ordinance.
He added that any changes to the planning and zoning board requires a public hearing.
“My primary goal since elected in 2012 was for the city to be financially stable and I am proud to say that has been accomplished as per the latest financial audit.
“It has been an honor to serve the people of Gregory. I thank them for their confidence and continued support in allowing me to have served the city beginning in 1974 and throughout the (22 years) to the present.”