A Bexar County district judge has issued a temporary restraining order preventing city officials from taking any punitive action against three city council members embroiled in a years-long political struggle in Castle Hills, just north of San Antonio.
District Judge Peter Sakai issued the order Tuesday, five days after Castle Hills police arrested two of the council members, Lesley Wenger and Sylvia Gonzalez, for allegedly obtaining and tampering with the personnel record of City Manager Ryan Rapelye.
Wenger, Gonzalez and the third council member, Mark Sanderson, have pressed to fire Rapelye since Gonzalez and Sanderson were elected in May.
Sakai also issued an order earlier this week allowing Gonzalez to continue to serve her district, turning back a legal challenge to her swearing-in from City Attorney Marc Schnall.
City officials including Mayor JR Treviño and Schnall have been mum about the criminal and civil aspects of the case. Rapelye declined to respond to a request for comment this week from The Texas Monitor.
A July 15 letter from Rapelye’s attorney, Malinda Gaul, to attorneys for the city, obtained by The Texas Monitor, defends his service to the city and threatens legal action.
“We demand that Sylvia Gonzalez cease and desist from making defamatory comments regarding Mr. Rapelye,” the letter said. “Mr. Rapelye intends to defend himself against the false allegations brought forth by Ms. Wenger in a proper City Council meeting. In the meantime, the City of Castle Hills, particularly Ms. Wenger, need to cease and desist from illegal activity which attempts to circumvent Ms. Rapelye’s legal right to defend himself.”
The conflict between the council members and Rapelye and Schnall began with Gonzalez’ request to have Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, a friend of hers, deliver the oath of office at her swearing-in May 14.
No one in attendance, including the mayor, other sitting council members and Schnall, questioned her swearing-in at the time, but earlier this month Schnall declared Gonzalez’ council seat vacated because her swearing in violated state law.
The government code Schnall referred to allows for a licensed peace officer to perform oaths when the “administration of the oath relates to the officer’s duties,” leaving room for interpretation. Gonzalez’ attorney, Art Martinez de Vara, contends that state law governing a Type A municipality like Castle Hills gives the city council and not a city attorney final authority to vacate a council seat.
Sakai this week agreed and set an Aug. 9 date to hear Martinez de Vara’s request to turn the temporary restraining order he granted into an injunction until Gonzalez’ case can be heard by a jury.
Just 10 days after the swearing-in, Gonzalez and Wenger met with Rapelye to discuss what the women believed to be the unjust firing of a city employee, Martinez de Vara said.
Rapelye later told investigators he asked Treviño and police Sgt. Paul Turned to sit in on the meeting as witnesses. Gonzalez asked to see Rapelye’s personnel file and she and Wenger looked through it, Wenger writing down notes. When confronted by Rapelye with what she had copied, Wenger tore up her paper, according to the city’s arrest documents.
Early on the morning of July 18, the day after a special council meeting had been called to discuss Gonzalez’ seat on the council, police arrested Wenger, 77, and Gonzalez, 72, in their homes.
Wenger is free on a $30,000 bail on felony charges of fraudulent use of identifying information and tampering with or fabricating evidence. Gonzalez is free after posting a $5,000 bail on a misdemeanor charge of tampering with a government record.
Martinez de Vara said before his client comes to trial in criminal court he intends to ask the Texas Rangers to investigate how city officials and police handled the investigation and arrests.
“This was done in the most aggressive and embarrassing way possible, going to the homes of these women at 7 a.m., handcuffing them and taking them out,” Martinez de Vara said.
Sanderson, who was familiar with the city’s recent political history when he decided to run for office, said he still has been shocked by the level of acrimony from the city’s paid administrators toward Wenger and Gonzalez.
“There is a conspiracy at city hall to thwart the will of the council,” Sanderson said.
That “will” includes three of five council votes to get rid of Rapelye, who Sanderson said has been inattentive to the city’s real issues: street improvements and flooding problems.
“When you call city hall, most of the time there’s no one there to pick up the telephone,” he said.
To judge from recent history, the top priority for elected and paid officials in Castle Hills is to undermine one another. Wenger, who is married to Bob Anderson, a former mayor of Castle Hills, made firing former city manager Rita Hoyl her first priority when she was newly elected to city council in 2014.
Saying he was just as much under fire, Mayor Bruce Smiley-Kaliff resigned just days after Hoyl left.
In July 2016, just months after the city council approved giving her a $22,500 pay raise, city manager Diane Pfeil was forced out by the council on a 4-1 no confidence vote. Then-Mayor Tim Howell, who Sanderson describes as one of Wenger’s chief antagonists, had put Pfeil on paid leave, but would not explain why.
Two years later in July, Wenger led a council majority in terminating the contract of city attorney Michael Brenan, a few months after the city hired Rapelye.
Wenger, who had taken one term off before being elected again in May 2018, told her new colleagues on the council “her first order of business was to get rid of Ryan Rapelye and put her friend Diane Pfeil back in the job of the city manager,” according to a KSAT-TV report.
The Texas Monitor tried unsuccessfully to reach Pfeil and Hoyl for comment.